I expected the 30-minute teaser and subsequent discussion of eSe Teatro's production of Mud to be mildly interesting, if not 100 percent boring, as is the case with most if not all extracurricular theater activities. But during the talkback portion of the event, a woman wearing a yellow dress burst into tears. Then in response, one of the actors in the show burst into tears. Then many members of the audience burst into tears. And then there was me, a confused and conspicuously white man sitting nervously in a folding chair in a roomful of Latinas.
I had stumbled into one of the most profound theatrical experiences of my career as a critic: I could feel sadness and understanding and support filling the room, but because everyone was speaking Spanish, I had no idea what the hell was going on.
More than 20 domestic workers had gathered in a general purpose room at Casa Latina, a nonprofit located in the Central District that's on a mission to empower Seattle's Latino/a immigrants through educational and economic opportunities.
Rose Cano, the artistic director for eSe Teatro, had arranged to perform an excerpt of Maria Irene Fornés's Mud, which runs through July 30 at the Slate Theater, and then offered to moderate a casual discussion afterward. She'd set up similar events for the play with three other organizations—once at Chief Seattle Club, once at William Booth men's shelter, and once at Elizabeth Gregory Home, which is a women's shelter. Her troupe performs some shows in English and some in Spanish. Considering the audience on this occasion, they performed in Spanish.
At around 5:30 p.m. on a Friday, after a long day of work for many in the room, Cano and a small group of plainclothes actors got the show under way. A folding table and a few chairs served as an ad hoc set, but the actors delivered stirring performances despite the non-theatrical environment.
The story follows three extremely poor people—May (played by Monica Cortés Viharo), Lloyd (played by Marco Adiak Voli), and Henry (played by Fernando Cavallo)—as they try to manage their jobs, their health, and their personal relationships with one another. Lloyd is a hotheaded, macho farmworker who's suffering from some kind of prostate situation. Henry is a nerdy and loving friend-of-the-family type. And May is trying to learn to read so she can escape the metaphorical and literal mud everyone is clomping around in. May is worried, though, about leaving Lloyd behind—they grew up together and have some serious history.
After the final dramatic scene, the Casa Latina audience circled up for the talkback, a little reluctantly, or so it seemed to me. Though I remembered some Spanish from my high school and college years, I had trouble following the quick conversation. A woman next to me sensed my troubles, took pity, and leaned in to translate occasionally.
The group was discussing without judgment the complex situations confronting the characters. Many of the scenarios dramatized in the play, one of the women said, reflected realities she'd witnessed or heard about in her community here in Seattle: people refusing to seek medical treatment due to language barriers, people trapped in bad relationships, people working so hard they don't have energy to do the things they need to do so they don't have to work so hard. Many heads nodded in agreement.
Then the woman in yellow spoke out. She said she saw herself in the character of May because she was also illiterate. She came to the United States six years ago and has been trying to learn, but it's been difficult to begin studies as an adult. Through tears she said her father had told her she didn't need to learn to read because she was a woman. Her job was to pump out babies. Her husband told her the same thing. But now she's got babies—daughters—and she's doing everything she can to make sure they get a good education and learn to read.
Monica Cortés Viharo, the woman who plays May, broke into tears in response to this admission. She told the group that she could understand Spanish, but that she had to learn to speak it for the role. While learning her lines, it sometimes felt as if she couldn't read, either, and this feeling of helplessness was one of the ways she accessed her character's emotions.
For me, the moment reinforced the importance of representation in theater, and in a very concrete way revealed how much I can't see due to my many advantages. And here's Rose Cano, not waiting for the audience she wants to find her but rather going out to find them. Six people in the Casa Latina audience signed up to see the show afterward, and Cano said she's had similar results at the other locations. Surely there's a lesson in this for all small companies: If the mountain doesn't come to your rental, go to the mountain and then show it how to get to your rental.
Fornes's play, and Cano's treatment of it, is indisputably great, and the theatrical foreman in me felt deep appreciation for the formal elements of the piece. The actors' childlike but strangely flat affect aligned with Fornes's Beckett-like, stripped-down dialogue, and served as a perfect counterpoint to the violence that permeates every scene.
Though I was moved by the play's inevitably bleak ending, I didn't break down in tears like the woman in yellow. But creating a show that allows for both my experience and the experience of that woman is the whole reason anybody makes art in the first place.