Most accounts of Cherrie Moraga’s Digging Up the Dirt, receiving its world-premiere production at the Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble, will undoubtedly focus on the playwright’s admission in her script that it deals extensively with race and sex; they will call it unabashedly political and a postmodern rallying point of sorts for radical feminism.
And those accounts will be correct. But there is something far more resonant in Moraga’s poetically woven tragic-comic tale of love and desperation in the lives of two Xicana lesbians. Although infused with a palpable sense of solidarity for oppressed and repressed woman, Digging Up the Dirt is a play about love, specifically how hard it is to love and how hard many of us choose to love.
The play runs on dual tracks: One is occupied by Josefa Zanzibar, a woman convicted of the murder of Latin American musical crossover artist Sirena Cantante; the other concerns the murder of a Latina lesbian named Amanda.
The through-line in both is the character of the Poet (a riveting Adelina Anthony). The narrator, moral inquisitor and engine of the play, the Poet also surfaces in both of the stories: She visits Zanzibar in prison amid her life sentence, and she was Amanda’s lover some 20 years earlier.
Issues of lesbianism and Xicana identity pulse through both storylines, as well as the Poet’s narrative, and it seems undeniable that Moraga has written the play to shed light on the violence that members of both populations endure, as well as to empower women in the face of discrimination and hatred.
Digging Up the Dirt exhibits its share of anger and standard-waving. A major creative and academic force in radical feminism as well as Latin-American studies, Moraga is not a writer who minces words or soft-pedals her ideas. But she is also a poet and playwright of unquestionable talent, and it’s the poetry in her script and the emotionally arresting portrayals of her characters that elevate her piece from its confining focus on identity politics to a far-more-universal realm. And that realm is the domain of love, simply and impossibly complicated.
Both Zanzibar and the Poet are equally fanatic in their kind of love. Zanzibar (a sweetly maniacal Virginia Grice) harbors a fanaticism driven by sexual repression, as well as weight and identity issues. Her insatiable yearning to be close to the singer who embodies everything she craves ultimately triggers her choice to kill the object of her unrequited love.
The Poet, on the other hand, is not the engine that kills Amanda. But it’s the Poet’s inability to let go of the memory of Amanda that has propelled her into a lifetime of sexual dalliances. She compares every lover to Amanda, and since they don’t pass the impossible litmus test, she moves on and on, leaving a trail of women who either are grateful to her for loving them or hate her for leaving them.
That sense of fanaticism and the reality they’ve all irreparably damaged their lives—or at least destroyed their chance to forge an authentic relationship—imbue each character with desperation and frustration, something that makes both Zanzibar and the Poet wholly sympathetic. And that’s yet another remarkable feature of Moraga’s play: Though both women are destroyed or deeply wounded by their unrequited love, Moraga makes no excuses for their excesses and no apologies for their zealousness. We are never asked to feel sorry for or to judge these women. Their love, as brutally committed as it is, is theirs and theirs alone, and Moraga makes no attempt to paint it in softer colors.
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The production, helmed by Moraga and Anthony, is excellent. Moraga’s structure is decidedly postmodern. Characters comment that they are in a play, there are frequent fourth-wall breaks, and a freewheeling, playful approach toward theatrical convention enlivens the script. The production serves the structure immaculately, from seamlessly integrating apparently incongruous midway performers into the proceedings to the inflatable doll that serves as the stand-in for the Latin American pop star.
Digging Up the Dirt operates—and works—on a level that resides deep in the human heart, as well as in the biggest arenas of culture, sexuality and politics. And it’s to Moraga’s credit that she has crafted such a beautifully written, emotionally confessional, morally questioning and sharply honed political manifesto.
Digging Up the Dirt at Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble, 310 W. Fifth St., Santa Ana, (714) 600-0129; www.breathoffire.org. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m. Through Aug. 29. $15-$20.