Getting to direct a play that captures a group of marginalized Latinas who find themselves trapped on the wrong end of the economic business scale is a delight for Marie Ramirez Downing. Yet the play’s exploration of exploitation may be the least important issue that is examined.
After a lengthy casting process that took six months to complete, Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse is currently running the classic Josefina Lopez play “Real Women Have Curves,” running through Sunday, June 5. Lopez was only 21 when she wrote the script, a piece that has gone on to do big business in regional and identity-specific theatres. It was also adapted into a critically-acclaimed film in 2002 featuring the film debut of America Ferrara and starring the legendary Lupe Ontiveros.
While the script was set in 1987, lots of updates have taken place, characters now using cell phones and Instagram, as well as critical issues of modern times.. But what has remained throughout the play is the commitment to giving voice to a group of Latinas who struggle for happiness and relevance.
Downing, an assistant professor and director of the acting program at Sonoma State University, along with actor Anakarina Swanson, who plays the vital role of business owner Estela, spoke about the different issues the play deals with, what it means to engage with such a landmark production, and what would be a most ideal audience outcome.
David John Chávez: What do you find to be the specific challenges in producing the play? What was hard for you to convey to your cast?
Marie Ramirez Downing: My main challenge was my need to represent the characters in the play authentically in my casting. I wanted women who identified as Mexican and who could speak Spanglish and identify with the culture first and foremost. Next, I wanted to represent the “curves” in the play. That was difficult as many women these days want to as Rosali says in the play, “be thin and sexy.” Especially those pursuing theatre and film careers. But I believe that is changing. Though I whole-heartedly wanted to spotlight women of different sizes and those women were ready to share of themselves, butit took about 6 months to cast the play. One thing that was important to convey, was that although this play is deemed a comedy, that there are serious, real life issues in this play that we can’t portray lightly. We must be true to their situations of immigrant women in America. The comedy will come, but we can’t force it.
Estela has some very specific challenges, and is not a character whose has had many people who have broken doors down in front of her. What are some astute observations you’ve made as you have observed life which helped inform your portrayal?
Anakarina Swanson: Personally, I really identify with Estela. I too come from a family of immigrants, and have seen first hand how hard it is to make it in a country where one has to work against all odds to survive and thrive. I have recently become a small business owner myself, and understand the challenges of being a woman of color, not having many examples before me on how to navigate this process. It can be terrifying and rewarding, exciting and stressful. There are times when you don’t have it all figured out but you have to keep going, even if you are stumbling through it. As long as you stumble forward, it’s a step towards success.
The scene where the women all remove their clothing does a lot – it’s a moment for vulnerability, but also joyous and empowering. Every director I’ve seen has approached that scene differently in terms of preparation. How did you and your cast process this moment in the narrative?
MRD: From the beginning I wanted the cast to know that we would follow their lead when it came to their comfort levels of removing their clothes. We also talked about the important moment when they do as it is a liberating and brave choice for not only the actors but the characters. Ana stands there the longest (in bra and underwear) endearing the most hard-hitting criticism from her mother. Reilly Milton (Ana) is so strong in the way she handles this, and receives applause when vocalizing her pride in her body. We practiced removing clothes at different comfort levels, but in the end, each one of the women chose what felt right for them and it is a joyous moment in the play when they all twirl in delight and receive cheers from the audience.
What is one of your biggest thrills about participating in this show?
AS: The most exciting aspect about working in a show like this is simply being able to tell this story. Being able to be the voice to a group that usually put their heads down, work and go unnoticed. Being able to give a voice to those women who work tirelessly for their families, themselves and their future. To these women who are expected so much from but hardly ever get recognized or celebrated.
As a brown creative in theatre, the moments when you can work on something so specific to your culture are not often. In this case, this is a play, written at the time by a very young playwright that centers the trials and tribulations of marginalized Latinas. What has been the most thrilling part of directing something of this magnitude for your community?
MRD: I have found so much joy and a deep connection working on this play. As a Mexican American identifying artist working in Sonoma County, I want to do this play to represent my own roots, and those of the Mexican actors living in California. I love that my cast of Latina women are doing this play for themselves! They loved working on the play as did I. The main thing was the strong connection we made having shared similar cultural and family narratives. We laughed and cried together every week. I couldn’t be prouder of what we were able to accomplish in our short rehearsal period together.
What would be the ideal scenario in terms of how an audience engages with this play?
AS: My biggest goal for this production is that audience members allow themselves to really listen to these women’s stories, and leave the theater with a new perspective, a sense of empathy and an understanding that all people struggle, and that all stories are important stories to be told and heard.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
6th Street Playhouse presents “Real Women Have Curves”
Written by Josefina Lopez
Directed by Marie Ramirez Downing
6th Street Playhouse Monroe Stage
52 W. 6th Street, Santa Rosa, CA
Through June 5th
All seats – $29
For tickets, call (707) 523-4185 or visit 6thstreetplayhouse.com