Maria Elena Ramírez is the perfect person to be starring in a straight play on Broadway.
An abundance of straight plays on the Great White Way harken back to a different time, when names like Neil Simon and Arthur Miller ruled Broadway. Nowadays, a straight play on theatre’s highest rent and musical district must have major star power to last.
“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” opened on Broadway in 2014 and ran just under two years. It was universally lauded, a breakout performance for Juilliard graduate Alex Sharp in his first professional role, and landed five 2015 Tony Awards, including best play. According to the production, at the time of its closing, the show was the longest running straight play on Broadway in 10 years, selling out despite the fact there was no major star billing and it runs for nearly three hours.
So why does the show fit Ramírez like a glove?
Ramírez’ upbringing and career has taken many unlikely turns, as unlikely as a long-running straight play on Broadway. She was raised a first-generation Mexican-American in the state of Utah, a state that was not known for its large Latino population years ago. With her parents migrating from Morelia, Michoacan, Ramírez grew up wanting to study theatre of all things, earning her degree at the University of Utah, and then obtaining a Master of Fine Arts from New York University. And in the show, Ramírez plays the educator Siobhan, who is British.
The U.S. national tour of London’s National Theatre production opens Wednesday, June 28th at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre for the next five weeks. And for Ramírez, who knows that her career path might not have fulfilled the vision her parents had when they migrated to the United States, she is still thrilled by her career choice nonetheless.
“You really want to fulfill all of the dreams your parents had for you, and then you come here and have all the opportunities, and you want to be true to yourself,” said Ramírez. “I have a very animated family and there are characters in my family which is inherent in me.”
That initial joy of theatre and performing as a young girl was not something Ramírez believed would last. But the impracticality of an unsteady career in theatre still called her. And since it was calling, Ramírez felt she had to listen.
“I thought I would get to college and get it out of my system, but I couldn’t let it go,” said Ramírez. “I didn’t want to regret it so I felt I would try it all the way and just do it full blast.”
In the past few years, there have been more opportunities for actors of color on American stages, with more work being developed in response to the shifting demographics of the country. More playwrights of color have done important work to control the narrative, writing and producing theatre that allows their unique contributions as immigrants and the offspring of immigrants to be dramatized in more honest and organic ways.
This was not the world Ramírez entered when she made the decision to pursue acting. And even though many of her mentors in her undergraduate education encouraged her to pursue her dreams, she was still aware of what she didn’t want from her fledgling career.
“As a Mexican-American woman, I knew it was going to be a difficult journey and there would be less opportunities for me,” said Ramírez. “I didn’t want to get stuck in clichés and stereotypes.”
Siobhan is a woman who gets to the heart and the soul of 15-year-old Christopher Boone, a young boy on the autism spectrum, though the exact diagnosis is never explicitly stated. The role allows her to break out of the cliché, a Mexican-American woman playing a British school employee. While booking the role required her to utilize every talent in her toolbox, it was also dependent on other members of the show’s creative team to allow Ramírez to fulfill their vision, and her own.
“You really just have to keep working through people’s perceptions on what you should be doing,” said Ramírez. “Hopefully when you get on stage, you can change people’s minds on what they think you should be doing.
What Ramírez loves about her role is the ability to play a character that shares her heart with this young man, and connect to him in ways that others can’t.
“Siobhan is the one person who is able to understand and communicate with him,” said Ramírez. “You see right away that she doesn’t talk down to him. She has a warm personality and she’s really fighting for this boy, and I try to find the warmth in her, share her concern and support. She is there for him and works to be his voice.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
SHNSF presents the National Theatre production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time”
Written by Simon Stephens
Directed by Marianne Elliott
Adapted from the 2003 novel by Mark Haddon
SHN Golden Gate Theatre
1 Taylor Street at Market, San Francisco, CA
Through July 23rd
Tickets range from $55 – $275
For tickets, call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com