Near the end of Josefina Lopez's Real Women Have Curves, an aspiring young writer tells us that as she grew up, she wanted to teach her Chicana elders how to live a better, more liberated life. "But in their own way," Anna says in retrospect of her mother's friends and co-workers, "they taught me about resistance, about a battle that no one was fighting for them except themselves." These simple words, movingly spoken without a trace of self-pity or self-reproach, prove to be an eloquent summation of the themes underscoring Lopez's delightful play about five Latinas struggling to eke out a meager existence in a Los Angeles storefront sweatshop.
But what's remarkable about El Centro Su Teatro's charming production, smartly directed by Debra A. Gallegos, is that all five amateur actresses beautifully realize the depth of their characters' unarticulated yearnings--even when Lopez's chatty dialogue seems to indicate that the quintet of garment workers are simply engaging in run-of-the-mill girl talk or striking up an impromptu, if truncated, debate about contemporary social ills.
Take, for instance, an Act Two scene in which the women, each of whom earns a paltry $67 per week when they're actually paid, cut loose to the strains of "Tequila." Bringing to mind a similarly exuberant episode from Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa, each actress conveys her particular character's unique sense of humor about the plight that she and her co-workers face: If they don't fabricate more than a hundred dresses by Friday, their shop will be repossessed, and one of them might be deported. In the face of that impending disaster, Anna (Margarita Espinoza) decides that she can't stand the heat anymore and, without further ado, sheds all of her clothing save for her underwear and sports bra. When one of the women tells Anna that, young as she is, she really ought to lose some weight in order to make herself more marketable as a prospective wife, Anna declares that she's purposely kept herself heavy as a way of flouting society's dictum that only thin people are considered beautiful. A few minutes later, Anna's mother, Carmen (Lisa Ramos), confesses that she gained weight so that her husband, always eager to make her pregnant--and therefore unattractive to other men--would lose interest in having sex with her.
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By the time the harried shop supervisor, Estela (Valarie Castillo), tells her colleagues that she doesn't want to be thin because she "would like to be taken seriously, considered as a person," the time seems ripe for the rest of the women to follow Anna's daring lead and strip down to the barest of essentials. Shortly after Rosali (Crisanta Duran) admits that she feels like an elephant in her skintight attire (she's taking diet pills to squeeze into a size nine) and the supposedly straitlaced Pancha (Juanita Pisano) acknowledges that her self-image isn't everything it should be, the girls take off their outer garments and revel in the sight of each other's full-figured physicality. It's a well-acted, poignant scene that's thankfully free of the sort of militant, strutting pretension that typically marks more self-indulgent--and less persuasive--theatrical examinations of naked truths.
Lopez does have an occasional tendency to imbue her characters' dialogue with a preachy tone, but the performers always manage to emphasize each woman's intriguing humanity instead of the dramatist's more obvious rhetoric. In fact, from the play's beginning moments, we find ourselves drawn to each character's quirky personality--her everyday wishes, hopes and wants--before we become immersed in their larger, more universal dilemmas. As a result, it doesn't take more than a couple of lines later on to drive home the playwright's points about, say, domestic abuse or urban poverty. When the normally reticent Pancha joins a discussion about why some wives stay with their battering spouses, for instance, Pisano's uncluttered delivery of a few carefully chosen words--"Maybe she loves him"--accompanied by the other girls' quickly averted, downcast countenances, clearly illuminates both the problem at hand and the complexities of Pancha's character.
To be sure, a few scenes in this community effort lack a professional company's deft and multilayered approach. At a recent performance, though, the capacity crowd--which included spectators of all races and ages--couldn't have cared less. Far from worrying about the finer points of aesthetic principle, most in the audience appeared to be fascinated by these five bravely innocent actresses who, much like the characters they portray, took a risk that inner beauty and soulful poetry would triumph over acquired trickery and self-important puffery. Like Anna says of her friends and relatives at play's end, Gallegos and company's homespun artistry winds up opening our eyes to the playwright's message in unexpected, though unmistakably precious, ways.
Real Women Have Curves, extended through May 8 at El Centro Su Teatro, 4725 High Street, 303-296-0219.