Old Globe’s ‘American Mariachi’ gives women a voice in a musical tradition
For the characters at its center, “American Mariachi” is a story of people defying bias and cultural expectations in pursuit of a dream.
For the five women portraying those characters, it has been in part a story of defying odds as to just how quickly one can learn a musical instrument well enough not to go splat in front of a live audience.
“None of us knew how to play the instruments we’re playing at the beginning of this process,” says Jennifer Paredes, who plays Lucha in José Cruz González’s world-premiere play at the Old Globe. “So that was kind of terrifying!
“There was a lot of ‘faking it until you make it’ going on. But we started really bonding — we spent our days off together, (and now) we just love each other so much.
“And I think we’ve really encouraged each other to step up in a lot of ways — not just with the instruments but also with our own personal journeys. That has been one of the most profound experiences I’ve had coming out of this show.”
When: Previews begin Friday. Opens March 29. 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through April 29.
Where: Old Globe Theatre’s Darlene and Donald Shiley Stage, Balboa Park.
Tickets: $30 and up.
Phone: (619) 234-5623
Those real-life journeys actually serve as pretty good parallels to what happens in the play, points out playwright González — because the women in the story are meant to be newcomers, too.
Set in the 1970s, “American Mariachi” focuses on a group of American women of Latinx heritage who decide to perform mariachi — the Mexican folk-music form that has origins in the 19th century and a rich cultural history in that country.
Mariachi was long a male-dominated world, with traditionally few opportunities for women. But González had been intrigued by the work and perseverance of female mariachis he had met — including the play’s musical director, Cynthia Reifler Flores, who has been performing and championing the style for some three decades.
“I wanted to show how these women end up embracing this music, even though they’re not allowed to,” the playwright says. “I was really intrigued by the story about women having to break barriers within the culture. The culture wasn’t going to permit them to go play in bars, because women are not allowed there.
“But they wanted to play the music. They wanted to share the experience they had shared with their families. And in so doing, what these women found was a sense of empowerment, a sense of belonging.”
For James Vásquez , the top San Diego-bred theater artist who’s directing “American Mariachi,” the kinds of obstacles facing Lucha and her friends aren’t simply of historical interest.
“The story is set in the ‘70s, but if you look at in 2018, it’s one of those slap-in-the-face reminders of, ‘We’ve made progress, but why haven’t we come further?,’” says Vásquez, longtime director of the holiday favorite “Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” for the Globe.
The Balboa Park theater is producing “American Mariachi” in association with the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Co., where the show was staged in January. And Vásquez says he has learned during the show’s journey so far that the music it celebrates is a natural fit for theater.
“For highly dramatic folks like us,” he says with a laugh, “the music, as I’ve come to discover, is so expressive.”
The show informs audiences that “the music is played from births to funerals — from baptisms to birthdays to marriages. So it can encompass all these different emotions.
“What I’ve found is that every song sort of takes me on a different emotional journey. (At one moment), you hear those violins, and just the pain of those violins, and you can’t help but sort of lift up with it.”
To Paredes, there’s likewise “something powerful about the music. I didn’t really grow up with mariachi music, but my mom was from Tijuana and my dad was from Peru, so we would take trips to Mexico every once in a while.
“And there, the mariachi music is just everywhere. Whenever I hear it, it takes me back to those days, and walking around on cobblestone streets in a tiny village in Mexico.
“There’s just something that lives in those songs and those instruments. Something just transforms in me and, I think, in a lot of people, like when we hear the trumpet doing those runs. There’s something I can’t explain that lives in that music. It really is kind of magical.”
Besides Paredes — who last month was named one of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle’s actors of the year for 2017 — “American Mariachi” also features Natalie Camunas (Gabby), Crissy Guerrero (Soyla, Sister Manuela), Rodney Lizcano (Mino, Padre Flores), Doreen Montalvo (Amalia, Doña Lola), Bobby Plasencia (Federico), Luis Quintero (Mateo, René, Rubin), Amanda Robles (Isabel, Tía Carmen), and Heather Velazquez (Hortensia, aka ”Boli”).
In addition, the production showcases five professional mariachis, who play onstage and who serve, says Vásquez, as something akin to “spirit guides” for the cast.
For Gonzalez, who first started studying mariachi about eight years ago, the play is a tribute to such women as musical director Flores and the late “Queen of Mariachi” Laura Garciacano Sobrino. Those two met at the University of California Santa Cruz and “were really giants” in the field, as the playwright puts it.
The inspiration for the play, González adds, “comes from so many places. It comes from a desire to celebrate our community, which oftentimes has been beaten down and put in a negative light. And to say, ‘No. We are going to show you a working family — these are not show mariachis, these are not world-class mariachis. These are working mariachis. And these folks also have a story to tell.’
“It’s been a gift for us as well as the community, because they see themselves reflected in a way that they can say, ‘We exist. We’re not stereotypes, we’re not cliches. We’re human beings.’
One other key theme of the piece, says Vasquez, is music as memory. Lucha’s mom is in the early stages of dementia, and the sound of a mariachi song helps her mind snap back to lucidity.
That combination of joy and sorrow, says Vásquez, goes to the heart of “American Mariachi.”
“It’s this lively, fun, energetic story that also hits you in the gut,” the director says.
“Just like the music.”
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