Anyone with a slight sense of familiarity with this infernal rag (or with the letters printed in the Orange County Register) is aware of Orange County’s sterling track record toward brown people, particularly immigrants. From schools and buildings named after KKK members to 1994’s Proposition 187 to our lovable skinheads, GOP and other jerk-offs, OC has served—and continues to serve—as a petri dish where tolerance blossoms.
So it’s no wonder that at least one actress involved in the Costa Mesa Playhouse’s staging of Real Women Have Curves, a 1990 play featuring five Latinas set in an East Los Angeles factory, reported on Facebook after the first weekend that she felt “disappointed” and “a bit defeated” about the lack of local support. While Angela Moore’s evidence cited nothing more than one patron’s clueless comment, a reviewer calling Josefina López’s play ” a soapbox” and few audience members sticking around after the show to talk to the cast, the admittedly subjective dismay of a Los Angeles-based actress performing in Orange County shouldn’t be dismissed at all.
Because while López has used her art to rally around issues from media representation to gentrification, this particular play is anything but a defiant rallying cry against a bigoted power structure or a call for raza solidarity and to raise desmadre (y’all got OC Weekly for that!). While it does challenge and prod and address the Big Issue of Immigration, its most revolutionary and truly provocative feature is its attempt to humanize the real people who live, work, struggle and succeed in the crosshairs of what is all too often reduced to ugly, polarizing, politicized shouting.
There is no politicking or posturing in López’s play, which is set in 1987 and is based on the playwright’s experience growing up undocumented in East Los Angeles and working briefly at a garment factory. She is represented by Ana (played by Aurora Hale last weekend and Anatalia Vallez otherwise), a recent high-school graduate and aspiring writer who yearns for a life free from the drudgery of sewing in her older sister Estela’s (Tiffany McQuay) tiny shop. Like her mother, Carmen (Moore) and two other employees, Pancha (Jessica Delgado) and Rosali (Angela Apodaca), Ana has recently obtained her green card, but every time a white van cruises near the shop, the women are conditioned to duck and hide out of fear of la migra.
The only one who really has to fear is Estela, who has yet to fill out the paperwork. But while justifiably paranoid of being deported, her chief concern is meeting the feverish production schedule for dresses that need to be finished in five days so she can pay her employees, fend off defaulting on her credit-card debt for her machines and avoid being dragged into court.
While the fear of deportation is never too far from the surface, López’s story is really a simple (too simple, at times) tale of women dealing with all-too-human issues: having and raising children, dealing with husbands and boyfriends, toiling as common laborers in an economic system in which they are paid $60 to produce dresses sold for $300 at a department store. And, of course, their bodies. This is a story about women, but they are anything but glamorous (in the traditional cishet advertising sense) women, and a great deal of their talk centers on their figures. It’s not until Ana—the youngest, but also the most book-smart and woke of the quintet—convinces the others that rather than being ashamed of their bodies, they need to embrace them (kind of a free-the-body-and-the-mind-will-follow thing) that the play’s main point manifests: Women can be strong individually, but together, they can move metaphorical mountains.
Director Sara Guerrero has assembled a quick-witted, talented cast, and Ryan Linhardt’s detailed set skillfully emulates the cramped conditions these women work amid. It’s a funny and fast-moving play that, while not possessing much dramatic urgency, feels like real people who don’t seem to be “doing” much—except persevering and building toward a better future. And that is what Ana—and the audience—learns. While she feels the need to educate and empower her co-workers, Ana winds up realizing that they have taught her far more: the value of doing the work with pride, regardless of how insignificant it may feel.
Though it is never explicitly stated in the play, that realization underscores the major irony of those who demonize immigrants as lazy leeches sucking off the hard-earned tax dollars of real Americans: that so many of these people, such as the five ladies in this play, work far harder and for far less pay and recognition than those who heap derision upon them. Less shouting and finger-pointing, and more work by all of us—what a revolutionary concept!
Real Women Have Curves at Costa Mesa Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa, (949) 650-5269; costamesaplayhouse.com. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Oct. 1. $18-$20.
Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???