By Jenn McKee
It’s tough to write bravely about the uber-sensitive issues of race, class and gender in America. Despite our forefathers’ idealistic, “melting pot” rhetoric, we all know perfectly well that there are (and always were) decidedly separate pots simultaneously cooking on burners of varying quality – and being reminded of this too bluntly makes many of us downright twitchy.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that Josefina Lopez’s “Confessions of Women from East L.A.,” now playing at the Matrix Theatre in partnership with Mah-Dey Theatre, tends to merely flirt with provocation. Consisting of nine monologues that aim to give voice to a range of urban-dwelling Latina women, “Confessions” suffers from an occasional tendency to backpedal from its own convictions, trafficking in stereotypes of other groups (Jewish men are “hard-working” and eager-to-please; white men are passionless; etc.) while decrying and de-bunking assumptions about Latinas.
And like most shows built from monologues, some passages are far stronger than others.
The opening talk by a motivational speaker/academic makes a crucial point when she tells her audience of young women, “It’s better to be lonely and successful than lonely and unsuccessful.” But urging them to look outside at her Mercedes undercuts her credibility and makes her seem shallow. Plus, the sketch tries too hard for laughs and thus misleadingly prepares the audience for a comedy-driven show.
In the next scene, an elderly woman confesses to her priest that her recently deceased husband gave her AIDS – a moment director Maria Serratos unfortunately plays for laughs by having the previously-sleepy priest perk up and scoot away from the confessor. (Perhaps the script calls for this interplay, but regardless, the emotional tone feels wrong.)
The show sparks to life, however, during the third monologue, when a young woman, presumed by others to be “easy,” advises her friend, who’s waiting to get a prescription filled at Kmart, on how to gain power through sex. Lizbet Calzada – who had the strongest stage presence of the show’s four actresses on opening night – imbues the character with a cynical, clear-eyed intelligence, and she stops the show cold when she confesses, “It’s hard to let a man watch you lose control. It’s the one thing I’ve got to have.”
Unfortunately, though, the lights went out on Calzada mid-speech; and more generally, Serratos’ staging makes the scene’s narrative situation unclear. Because Calzada delivers the monologue to the audience more than to the other actress on stage, I wondered at times if she were merely there to give voice to the silent woman’s thoughts.
Similarly, an otherwise-affecting monologue by a self-defense instructor who’s arrested for assaulting a man looked physically clunky and awkward on Matrix’s small stage.
Gerrick Reidenbach’s spare scenic design for “Confessions” consisted of a coat rack, bedecked in costumes and props, positioned at each corner of the stage; and a movable island that alternately served as an altar, a podium, a store counter, etc. Generally, the production, like the script, has moments of resonance and clarity, but I wish there had been even more.
‘Confessions of Women from East L.A.’
Mah-Dey Theatre & Matrix Theatre Company at Matrix Theatre, 2730 Bagley St., Detroit. Friday – Sunday through Sep. 27. $15. 313-967-0599. http://www.matrixtheatre.org