Conversations on Digging Up the Dirt

Review and analysis of new play at Breath of Fire Latina Theater

By Contributing Writer, Lisa Zion
Published on LatinoLA: August 4, 2010

Conversations on Digging Up the Dirt

"The energy and spirit that go into my work result in a unique expression of respect and reverence for women, the earth and indigenous way of life". Marsha Gomez, artist, activist, single mother

The same can be said for this play, "Digging Up the Dirt" written by Cherrie Moraga and co-directed by Adelina Anthony.

I was thrilled to be invited backstage after attending the world premiere of this play on Friday evening. On their website, the Breath of Fire Latina Theater describes the play as poetry and perversion. The plot interweaves two murder stories. One is the tale of "Sirena Cantante's" murderer, "Zanzibar," serving a life sentence, while engaging in lesbian romances and being mercilessly visited by the probing "Poet."

The second is an intimate account of the murder of "Amada," a Chicana lesbian killed by the hand of her own son. Through the telling of both stories, alternately satirical and tragic, audience members are held accountable for their own "crimes of passion" and the play becomes a kind of moving mirror to all our unacknowledged "murderous" deeds of the heart. I met with Cherrie Moraga and Adelina Anthony and in their own words

Cherrie tells us:

Both Adelina and I were co-directors all the way from casting to the final show.

Adelina adds: We started rehearsals on June 28 and we rehearsed for four weeks. I am the co-director and am also one of the lead actors in the play. I play the role of The Poet. If people come to the play, they are going to see humanity. If someone has any kind of resistance, or homophobia, the story and the acting we believe is compelling enough to teach us something about all our communities. I really feel that the lesbianism is the least dangerous thing that this play is talking about. It is these other points that Cherrie brought up about how we are trying as a nation to reconcile with the violence that is put upon us daily on multiple levels. You do not have to be queer to see yourself reflected in this story. You just have to come in and be open and ready enough to experience our stories, as a raza.

Cherrie joins in: I taught for many, many years from high school students to the university level and for many years I have worked with queer teenagers and my experience is that this is the kind of story that they need. There is a complexity to understand how violence happens within our families, to understand what the role of sexuality is. The story would be useful to them. We feel that this is a complicated, mature story. I would not want to exclude high school kids. It's good to have a mentor or a teacher to help them understand the play. High school students need this sort of story and not just queer students but as Chicanos to understand their role. The majority of characters are female and to understand their role as Chicanas, etc. Everyone has something to gain from this. I have always written specifically Chicano stories and I've always felt that we have always had diverse audiences. And what I've learned over the years by writing is that by being that specific is how things become universal. Here you have two stories based on a queer relationship but it is also about a mother/son relationship. And issues of homophobia come in and issues of internalized racism, all real issues in our community. And they come in and I feel like these are issues that we are all dealing with. And so I feel that I see theater as a social forum. We need to talk about things that are plaguing our communities so in that sense I want everyone to come and see it, straight, gay, men, women, youth, elders.

I always feel that the fierce Chicanas that I was raised by well, they knew life, they knew the complexities of life and they understood how desire and sexuality affected their relationships. They understood violence. They wanted to see those stories and they couldn't see those stories. I feel like it has been my job and others in my generation to try to make those stories available in our communities to help us be a better people.

I first started writing this play about ten years ago. I get ideas for a play, start writing, get on a roll and write a first draft then I put it down and return to it later when I'm ready. I did not work on this for ten years but I was doing other works. I have to say that a lot of this finally coming together was working with Adelina. We worked together before as co-directors and I feel like the possibility of having this relationship with her, she was a student of mine at Stanford University. I finally had a growing body of actors and plays that I could realize on my own terms. I began to do more directing and having Adelina as a professional actor who knows how to work specifically with an actor's perspective has been great. There are some experienced actors and some new actors, that combination made it possible to return to this play because I felt that I had the support from her and then working with Breath of Fire who wanted to do one of my plays. So that became my motivation to want to return to this play and it is really through the process of developing a premiere production that the best revisions happen. Having this ensemble group of actors who help walk off these problems has solved the play, particularly Adelina because she is a good dramaturge. I could see where things were not working and Adelina was especially helpful with that.

Adelina: I am totally aware of what I constantly refer to as our queer sterical moments and what I mean by that is that I don't take for granted that I have Cherrie in my life as a mentor, as a friend because I feel that in many ways, Cherrie is our premier Chicana playwright. And the fact that I have a real relationship with her over many years I know that I would not be here as a theater artist if not for her doing the work that she was doing long before I even started doing theater. It's a real privilege to know that the caliber of the work ethic is so Mexican and she is a hard worker. It is something that I can relate to because that I connect with. My mother never got paid for her work, raising 8 children and keeping a home. It is hard work and it is nonstop and when we work in theater we have to revise and revise and sometimes work 12 ÔÇô 16 hour days. But there is such a love for the work. I recognize that these moments are not to be taken for granted. I recognize that I am working with an artist whose politics and spiritual vision are absolutely what we need and the fact that Cherrie really hasn't been given the support on a regional theater level. That, to me, is intentional in that we have theaters, we have artistic directors who are Latino and the fact that our premier Chicana playwright doesn't have access to those stages and production is a very real way speaks volumes to our fear about the truth that she speaks. So in my relationship it is the trust because I believe the politics. I would say that 99% of the lines that The Poet speaks, I believe. I am the queer poet. I feel an absolute responsibility. If I have come on as mentee, then I have to meet the bar, I have to keep learning and keep working and look at who is around me. Who is coming up after me because if we do not carry each other and support each other, no one else will. And especially when we're doing this kind of work. For all the reasons that I think are obvious in terms of what the work requires of our audiences, what it requires of the artists who come here.

I want to give props to the Breath of Fire Latina Theater because this play required different things from the norm and I think when people see women directors we are not used to strong leadership from women, even among ourselves. And something I respect and admire about Cherrie is she is clear about what she wants and what she needs and I feel that I am getting some clear messages that we cannot compromise. We cannot compromise because we are getting asked to compromise in every aspect of our world every day and I feel that this is one of the reasons that I have been able to walk very out as Chicana which is very hard to do, and out as a lesbian. All this language is constantly used against us so there is absolute trust between us because she has saved my life and for so many others. Because had these books and plays not been written I would not be here. And I am clear about my trajectory because thank goodness for Chicano theater and thank goodness for the 80s and her mentorship because I see myself in her. I talk to my generation because we did not appear just out of nowhere. There have been roads that have been created for us and I have been respectful of those roads. I don't question my loyalty and I think that I feel very blessed. I have a sense of recognizing in many ways beyond this relationship that we create very beautiful haunting works together then this medicine that keeps having this ripple effect. I feel lucky.

Cherrie tells us:
Two years ago, artistic director, Sara Guerrero told me about the Breath of Fire Latina Theater. We met at a function and she told me that she would love to have me come and do a play here. I wanted to resurrect this play. I saw an announcement for the National Association of Latino Art & Culture grant and they had a Masters Artist grant. And in the Masters Artists grant the master artist gets a grant to basically work in a mentor/mentoree relationship with another artist. So of course, I immediately thought of Adelina and she had directed a reading of this play where Virginia Grise happened to play the role of Josefa and I was taken by the reading and I told Sara I think I have a play for you. So I applied for the grant and received the grant. I asked Adelina to co-direct with me and it all came together in that way.

I think what people found out tonight was that to really understand the play they have to come back to see it more than once. When I hear people tell me that they want to come back to see this play again that tells me that something was achieved they want to come back and know it better. If you take something away emotionally that you have the ganas to want to come back so my feeling is that people should come early and then come back and see it again. Tell all your friends. I would love it for it to get as wide of an audience as possible. It would be good for the theater and it would be good for their growth.

Adelina: There is a partial nude scene in this play and I would never do that for anyone else but in a Moraga play. It is not gratuitous, it is absolutely necessary because it serves the story. I am aware that as an out Chicana lesbian that there is something to be gained by an actor who is absolutely in her Lesbian skin. The stories are in our bodies and I have to give props to my fellow actor, Cheryl Umana who plays the role of Amada. She was so professional and in my experience of working with other Latinas who are heterosexual, she really didn't express any kind of resistance or homophobia. She is the ideal kind of actor. She is professional and I point that out because we don't as directors, take that for granted. I have worked with actors in the past that can't get in their bodies because of internalized homophobia. The nude scene was intrical and I had an actress who matched me in her professionalism and her talent, and good corazon. I think that when people come you cannot control what the audience takes and we do live in a society that is highly saturated with sex. I use sex and sexuality in my own work as critique and allure but my hope is that at the end of the play's experience that it is an important story in the play but it's not the only thing that people walked away with. We carry desire and contradiction and the nudity for me is the least of the risk taking that I have to take. Any actor doing his real work knows that the emotional vulnerability is sometimes harder to reckon with.

Kudos to Adelina Anthony as The Poet, Virginia Grise as Josefa Zanzibar and Cheryl Umana as Amada. And also to the supporting cast, Anthony Rodrigo Castillo as Heyoka, D'Lo as the Butch Guard, and to Brenda Banda as the Femme Guard, Melissa Hidalgo as the Expert Witness. I would like to say how I appreciated the lighting by Karyn Lawrence and the sets by Ricardo Ordiano. What a wonderful evening of theater. Come see a great show and be sure to mention you saw this in Latino LA!

Friday, July 30 to Sunday, August 29
Ticket prices: $20 at door, $15 advance purchase
Breath of Fire Latina Theater
310 W. 5th Street
Santa Ana, CA 92701

*Partial nudity

About Contributing Writer, Lisa Zion:
Actor/Writer/Production Assistant @ Movido TV
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