Tanya Saracho’s Fade began as a brief outline at last year’s Colorado New Play Summit. A writer on Girls, Devious Maids, Looking and How to Get Away With Murder, Saracho was subsequently commissioned by DCPA Theatre Company artistic director Kent Thompson to expand her vision, and the result is a ninety-minute-long, two-person play based on Saracho’s own experiences as what she has termed a “token diversity hire” in Hollywood. The protagonist, Lucia, has been brought in to lend credibility to Latino characters. Both arrogant and insecure, she finds herself sitting in on meetings where not much is required of her since she hasn’t yet been assigned an actual script, dealing with the blank incomprehension of other writers, struggling to find words to explain her ideas, being undervalued by her boss. Her sole friend in Los Angeles is Abel, the janitor who comes regularly to clean her office. The two have some essential things in common, but there’s even more separating them. She was born in Mexico but educated in the United States, and her family is clearly affluent. Abel’s a Chicano, born and raised in an L.A. neighborhood rougher than anything Lucia’s ever experienced. He served in the Marines (she’s so naive she doesn’t know what his “Semper Fi” tattoo means) and has spent time in jail.
At first, Lucia treats Abel with the unconscious condescension of her class; he observes her struggles and responds to her delusions with resigned amusement. The early dialogue focuses so strongly on issues of race and class — why she’s been given the job and how he’s stuck in his, the stereotypical ways that Latinos are represented on television, the ignorance of the white world and the difference between the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” — that it feels textbook. Saracho seems to be downloading all of her own observations about Hollywood rather than creating living, breathing characters. But both become more human as things progress, particularly Lucia. Eventually entrusted with some writing responsibility for the unnamed show she’s working on, Lucia discovers the limitations of her own understanding, and here Abel can help her, sharing his life experiences and providing ideas for scenes and dialogue. At one point, he delivers a long, expository monologue about a traumatic event in his past, but, alas, it’s not very convincing. The individual details work to some extent — the half-crazed wife, the beloved and threatened baby daughter, the drug-dealer aunt, the thugs hanging around the household, the shedding of blood — but the pile-up feels excessive. Still, Lucia’s boss finds her writing more alive, and her standing at the studio rises.
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The plot has interesting possibilities. Will Lucia and Abel get romantically involved? The script glances at the possibility, then veers away. As Lucia gains respect in the world she previously despised, traces of her earlier arrogance reappear, and that’s interesting, too — but like the nascent love affair, this isn’t developed. Then there’s the entire issue of whom stories belong to: those who live them or those who tell them. It’s a theme that Donald Margulies explored to devastating effect in his play Collected Stories, in which a young writer achieves fame for a novel centered around a memory described, but never set down in words, by her famous and aging mentor.
There’s charm and humor in Saracho’s writing, and also in the light-footed, gently offbeat performance of Mariana Fernández as Lucia. Eddie Martinez is warm and understated — now and then a touch too understated — as Abel. As we left the theater, my daughter was reminiscing about her relationship with the janitor who cleaned the science lab at the university where she worked, and the shock she felt when she learned of his heart attack and death. Suddenly she was aware that while on one level she had known this man fairly well, had chatted with him regularly over two years, on another level she had never known him at all. I remembered that Tanya Saracho herself had formed a close enough relationship with the janitors at her studio to almost go on strike with some of them. Fade could be deeper and better developed, but it does evoke fruitful thoughts about the lives unfolding in tandem with our own, the mysteries they hold — of culture, class, race, gender — and the miraculous moments when the veil lifts and we recognize each other.
Fade, presented by the DCPA Theatre Company through March 13, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.