Theater / Film

Identity is at the root of City Theatre’s latest play at the Arsht Center

Written By Christine Dolen
November 27, 2023 at 8:15 PM

From left, Armando Acevedo, Talita Real, Emily Garcia Carrerou and Analisa Velez in City Theatre’s production of Carmen Rivera’s “La Gringa” at the Arsht Center through Sunday, Dec. 17. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

In vast and varied South Florida, cultural identity doesn’t get blended or homogenized within a proverbial melting pot.  Instead, we become part of what theater artist Gladys Ramirez describes as “a tapestry of cultures” – Cuban, Venezuelan, Colombian, Argentine, Haitian, Dominican and so many more.

Ramirez, executive director of Miami’s City Theatre, is staging the company’s about-to-open production of Carmen Rivera’s “La Gringa.” And as a Miamian born to parents who came to the United States from Peru, she has a deep understanding of the play’s protagonist.

Emily Garcia Carrerou as María Elena García pays a visit to Puerto Rico in a scene from City Theatre’s “La Gringa.” (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

The poignant comedy focuses on Bronx-born María Elena García, who will be played by Emily Garcia Carrerou in her professional debut.

María is a lifelong Nuyorican, a 22-year-old who decides to make her first trip to Puerto Rico during the Christmas holidays.

But despite her passion for all things Puerto Rican – her college major was Puerto Rican studies – María’s extended family views her as a decidedly American “gringa,” while in New York she’s seen as a Borinqueña (Puerto Rican).

So who is she? Ramirez understands that navigation, that dilemma.

“My agent wanted me to change my name,” says Ramirez, a New World School of the Arts graduate. “In Peru, I’m the American. Here, I’m the Latina.”

Carlos Orizondo and Emily Garcia Carrerou in City Theatre’s “La Gringa” at Miami’s Arsht Center. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

“La Gringa,” which previews at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 30, and opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 1, runs through Sunday, Dec. 17, in the Carnival Studio Theater at Miami’s Arsht Center.

It’s a play with an impressive history:  It has been running at Manhattan’s Repertorio Español since 1996 (it streamed during the pandemic), and is the longest-running Spanish-language play in Off-Broadway history.  Its original director, Repertorio Español co-founder and artistic director René Buch, worked with Rivera to translate a script she wrote in English into Spanish.  It also won Off-Broadway’s OBIE Award.

Yet this is the play’s debut in Miami, where many a play about Cuban roots and cultural identity has been produced, including Zoetic Stage’s world premiere of Hannah Benitez’s “GringoLandia” in the same Carnival Theater space in 2022.

“La Gringa,” which artistic director Margaret Ledford suggested as the company’s annual full-length play, deals with a different diaspora.

“This story is for everyone forced to emigrate for economic reasons.  What does that do to the people left behind?” says Ramirez. “And it celebrates the culture of Puerto Rico.”

Carmen Rivera’s “La Gringa” is the longest-running Spanish-language play in Off-Broadway history. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Ledford traditionally directs City’s winter play and several pieces in the company’s annual Summer Shorts festival. But this time the Tennessee native felt Ramirez, who staged the family-friendly musical “Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds” in 2022 for City, was the better choice to direct “La Gringa.”

“I didn’t feel I was the best person for the job . . . The more we talked about it, the more Gladys got passionate about it,” says Ledford, who knows some Spanish but in no way considers herself bilingual.  “Originally, we chose the English version of the script.  Then we thought about doing the English version and the Spanish version, which would have required two separate rehearsal schedules.  Then we thought, ‘What if we integrated the languages?’”

A bilingual version was done in June 2023 by St. Petersburg-based American Stage. But when Ramirez contacted Rivera about wanting to incorporate both languages, the playwright told her to create a combined script and send it to her.

“In my family, we switch back and forth between languages. How does that happen organically?  The hardest part was getting the jokes right,” says Ramirez. “Carmen was so open that it set the tone for how we’d collaborate.”

Armando Acevedo, left, and Carlos Orizondo sneak a drink in a scene from Carmen Rivera’s “La Gringa” at the Arsht Center. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

So now, City’s in-the-round production will be a bilingual blend, with the entire show captioned in English and Spanish to make it accessible to everyone.

“That’s how we live.  It reflects our day-to-day. You’re not one thing or the other.  I hope it resonates with people in a way that brings them together,” says the director.

Rivera was impressed with the result of Ramirez’s work.

“I’m excited. The script just flowed. Gladys did such an amazing job,” she says.

“La Gringa” is the story of a young woman much like the playwright.  Born in New York to Puerto Rican parents who spoke to her in English, Rivera didn’t learn Spanish until she became a student at New York University.

Although she says, “I sound like a gringa when I speak Spanish. It’s the accent of the diaspora,” Rivera used her newly acquired Spanish to talk with her grandmother, who didn’t speak English, acquiring the cultural treasures and family stories the two hadn’t been able to share so completely.

“I wrote an essay about my relationship to Spanish,” says Rivera. “At first it was a language of incomprehension, then fear, then frustration. But as I started to understand my grandmother, it became a language of discovery . . . now it’s a language of freedom.”

At the suggestion of her husband, playwright Cándido Tirado, Rivera expanded her short two-character play “The Universe” into “La Gringa,” incorporating elements of her experience into the character of María Elena García.

“He told me, ‘You have to make this a full-length play. It’s about identity, and we’re still becoming, still asking where do I belong?’” she says.

Although her experiences with relatives in Puerto Rico were happier, like Maria, the playwright tried to get a job on the island without success.  Her grandmother had lost dreams of wanting to be a singer, like Maria’s aunt in the play.  Her uncle Manuel, like the play’s Manolo, was a very funny man.

From left, Mario Silva and Emily Garcia Carrerou feel an unexpected attraction in City Theatre’s “La Gringa” at the Arsht Center. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

After “La Gringa,” Rivera wrote the Off-Broadway musical “La Lupe: My Life, My Destiny” about Cuban singer Victoria Lupe Yoli. Together, Rivera and Tirado wrote “Celia: The Life and Music of Celia Cruz,” which played at the Arsht Center in June 2009. The two are also founders and codirectors of Educational Play Productions, which takes thought-provoking plays into New York City schools.

Thanks in part to the work of dramaturg Karina Batchelor, the cast and creative team of City Theatre’s “La Gringa” – a group whose heritage spans multiple countries – is steeped in all things Puerto Rican, many referenced in Rivera’s script.  They know about the coquí, tiny male tree frogs who sing their mating call all night.  They know the music of the Bomba, the indigenous Taíno who were in Puerto Rico long before Christopher Columbus arrived, the supreme goddess Atabey, the traveling holiday celebration that is the parranda.

Carrerou leads the cast just months after graduating from the New World School of the Arts in May. (One necessary note for those steeped in South Florida theater: The play’s central character is not to be confused with Carbonell Award-winning actor-playwright Elena Maria Garcia, who will be back on the Carnival Theater stage May 2-19 in Zoetic Stage’s world premiere of “Cuban Chicken Soup When There’s No More Café,” the sequel to her popular solo show “¡FUÁCATA!”)

The cast of City Theatre’s “La Gringa” celebrates with a holiday parranda, with music, food, drink and storytelling on the menu. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

Armando Acevedo plays María’s welcoming uncle-by-marriage, Victor Burgos, with Talita Real as her notably unhappy aunt Norma and Analisa Velez as María’s cousin Iris. Carlos Orizondo, who originated the role of Palomo in the New Theatre world premiere of Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Anna in the Tropics,” plays María’s ailing, funny, spirited uncle Manolo Cofresí.  And Mario Silva is the entrepreneurial neighbor-farmer Ramón “Monci” Reyes who becomes close to María as he helps her navigate the disappointments of her dream trip.

Like her character, Carrerou is 22. And like María, the actor – whose family is Cuban and Argentine – doesn’t speak Spanish. She had thought that post-New World she might move to Spain for a time to learn the language, but given her debut in “La Gringa,” she’s extremely happy she stayed.

“To make my professional debut at the Arsht Center means a lot. I’m a Miami girl. The Arsht is our Broadway,” she says.

WHAT: “La Gringa” by Carmen Rivera

 WHERE: City Theatre production in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

WHEN: Preview 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 30, opening 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 1 (a pre-show Parranda on the Plaza with music, food and drinks happens at 6 p.m. on opening night); regular performances 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through Dec. 17

COST: $55 and $60

INFORMATION:  305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com. 

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