The new millennium has the Arabs. The '80s had Central Americans. The '90s had Wilson Phillips. Every decade has its own version of terror. "Oh, no! We can't use her! She might be a Sandinista!" Garbage. All of it.
—Mary O'Malley, Learn to Be Latina
Much of Mixed Blood Theatre's Learn to Be Latina is wrong. The play's main antagonist is a record company executive who comes with an overly thick Irish accent and communicates mainly through Calcetina, a hand puppet. Mary O'Malley is willing to say anything to anyone, the more offensive the better. Two of her suited yes-men spend much of their time doing the Senator Craig, while the third yes-woman is ready to swoop in and take over — or at least take over the puppet.
At the center of all this is Hanan, a young singer who wants to be a star. Her problem? The mad folks at the record company don't think a Lebanese-American is going to connect with the wider music-buying population, so they add an accent to her name, and after a quick, three-month training in how to be Latina, Hanán begins her ride to the top of the charts.
And how do the sensitive souls at the record label show Hanan how her ethnicity may be an issue? By miming a plane flying into the World Trade Center towers.
Playwright Enrique Urueta isn't just trying to offend — though that's certainly on the agenda — he wants to explore the fluid nature of identity. Hanan may think of herself as Lebanese, but she's spent as much time in Beirut as in Buenos Aires, her Latina alter-ego's hometown. Hanan also discovers that she's falling for Blanca, the record label's one authentic Chicana.
These are the relative moments of calm amid the storm, as Hanan moves deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of the ethnically confused modern-music world. Interestingly enough, this is the part of the show that feels the most dated — not the various references to 1980s and 1990s TV shows and pop songs. The music industry has changed quite a bit since Urueta wrote the script at the turn of the decade, to the point that all Hanan needed to do to get on Saturday Night Live was to mumble her way through a song and put it up on YouTube. (The talk about having a multi-platinum album is just so...quaint today.)
This is comedic territory Mixed Blood has explored before — from The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity to last year's Avenue Q to even the last show on the stage, Crashing the Party — and it's one that works well with the overall mission of prodding and poking at cultural, social, and sexual identity. Humor is often a useful way to delve into these issues, as it allows the proceedings to be stretched and exaggerated to make a point. Urueta doesn't leave many targets untouched, especially when Mary O'Malley and Calcetina are front and center.
That gives Aditi Kapil plenty to work with, and she digs in eagerly to bring the pair of characters to gaudy life. There's absolute delight in every wrong thing that comes out of Mary's mouth. There's a similar vibe among the chorus of yes-execs, as Bonni Allen (as Jill), Brian Skellenger (Bill), and Seth Tucker (Will) are like mini-Marys, sniping along with their own off-color obsessions.
That leaves Jamie Elvey as Hanan and Hope Cervantes as Blanca to be the closest things to real characters here. It's not that they don't have their outrageous flaws — they couldn't survive in this universe if they weren't exaggerated — but the two actors have to keep a human center about them or we're not going to care a whit about the action, which would make the hurly-burly of the show pointless.
The actors are up for the task, as is director Mark Valdez, who, teamed with a crew of solid designers, created the outsized world the play needs, down to the point that using "Yakety Sax" for a final chase scene is perfectly understandable.
In the end, I think Urueta could have ramped up the pressure even more. I'm hard to offend — especially when most of the "wrong" comes from characters who are clearly nuts — and I left wanting even more of this crazy world. Maybe a sequel for Hanán's comeback album?