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THEATER REVIEW | Mixed Blood's "Learn To Be Latina" asks many questions, offers few answers
The satire and impropriety of Mixed Blood’s production of Learn To Be Latina are not for the faint of heart. The show is, however, for anyone ready to laugh and groan at the absurdity of race in media, and in American culture more generally. One moment a campy slapstick comedy, and the next a thoughtful commentary on individual identity and responsibility, Latina builds naturally on the themes raised in Mixed Blood’s season opener Neighbors, and delivers the audience an experience that is not merely entertaining, but truly challenging in its content.
Latina focuses on the career of fame-hungry Lebanese-American singer Hanan Mashalani (Jamie Elvey). Told by record executives that in order to receive a major contract she must hide her racial identity, Hanan considers how important her background is to her understanding of her self. Leaving her Lebanese heritage behind, Hanan allows her employer to not only erase her previous life, but create a new one for her. Marketed as Hanãn, the next new Latina sensation, her album climbs the charts and eventually earns her multiple Grammy nominations. The tension arises when Hanan considers the cost of her fame. As her success increases so do her lies; and as her new identity becomes well known she starts to lose her sense of self.
As you may imagine, Learn To Be Latina does a good job of raising questions. The frustration for the audience is in the lack of answers. Considerations of personal responsibility to one’s history and culture, the role of media and entertainment in shaping the racial consciousness of the public, and openness around sexual orientation are all raised at points throughout the show, but are quickly brushed away by a crude joke or Benny Hill style chase scene. While all important topics, by dabbling in each none were given the attention or time they clearly deserve.
That being said, the cast of Latina is incredibly adept at not only straddling the line between significant and absurd content, but delivering it all well. Elvey’s naive songwriter is the perfect straightperson to the caricatured chaos of other characters, particularly Aditi Kapil’s record executive, Mary O’Malley. While there are moments when the script seems to fall short, not giving enough time to complex emotions and political issues, the cast more than compensates for this with their emotive delivery, and well-timed punchlines.
Learn To Be Latina is less than perfect, but any conversation around the weighty issues brought up in this show will be. Maybe that’s the point. While we may be frustrated by the lack of clear answers to these questions in any piece of art, opinion article, or conversation with a friend, asking the questions in the first place is an important step. Mixed Blood takes that step time and time again, and Latina is no exception.
Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Collaborative.
©2012 Lauren Van Schepen