Learn to be Latina

L-R: Blanca (Hope Cervantes), Mary O'Malley (Aditi Kapil), Will (Seth Tucker), Jill (Bonni Allen), Bill (Brian Skellenger) watch Hanan (Jamie Elvey). Photo by Rich Ryan.


Learn to be Latina at the Mixed Blood Theatre throws political correctness out of the window and presents the notion of “palatably ethnic” entertainment to post-9/11 audiences. In the hysterical comedy written by Enrique Urueta and directed by Mark Valdez, the Lebanese-American heroine, Hanan Mashalani, played charmingly by Jaime Elvey in a Mixed Blood debut, must sacrifice her identity in order to sign a lucrative contract with FAD Records. What follows is part social commentary, part sex farce and, ultimately, a biting satire on pop culture, the entertainment industry and “hyphen-American” sensibilities.

After learning of Hanan’s heritage, FAD’s executive trio, a greek chorus made up of identically outfitted and choreographed characters named Jill, Bill and Will (Bonnie Allen, Brian Skellenger and Seth Tucker), decides that her Middle Eastern background is too “explosive” to market to mass audiences.  Throughout the play, the trio acts as comic relief, offering laugh out loud socio-sexual commentary, physical comedy and a dance number or two.  The record company’s dreaded “Ethnic Consultant,” with her PhD in ethnic studies slash MBA, intervenes and introduces the-character-you-love-to-hate, the fierce Mary O-Malley, played by Ivey Award winner Aditi Kapil.  O’Malley skewers political correctness with an Irish brogue and offers Mashalani a recording contract if she agrees to pose as a Latin-American singer.  Hanan balks at giving up her last name and Lebanese-American identity until O’Malley lures her with the promise of stardom and points out the superficiality of hyphen-Americans, those who maintain few ties to the countries left behind in pursuit of the American dream. So, Hanan learns to be Latina through a hysterical series of tests, such as learning to roll a burrito blindfolded and jumping across a fake border between Mexico and the United States. My favorite was photo montage of famous celebrities on a sliding scale of Latina-ness with Gloria Estefan and Jennifer Lopez near top and Cameron Diaz at the bottom behind the very white Dakota Fanning.

Meanwhile, Hanan befriends the company’s so-called “Office Bitch” and discovers a new sexual awakening with the only real Latina in the play, the ironically-named Blanca played by Hope Cervantes. The play also takes on the audience’s homoerotic discomfort in some of the bawdiest scenes of the evening involving Bill and Will, as they discover their own mutual sexual attraction.  A solo-erotic scene involving O’Malley and her alter ego, a Latina hand puppet, in my view, was gratuitous and carried the joke a bit too far.

As Hanan’s fame grows, so do the conflicts between her real identity and the ones created to sell records, including a fake relationship with Latin hottie Wilmer Valderrama and the re-named “Hananarrama,” poking fun at celebrity couple name mashes. The showdown occurs at the Grammy awards where Hanan must choose between her authentic self and the FAD creation.

The play’s creative team made good use of pop hits as background commentary and the minimalist set allowed space for physical comedy and onstage antics.  Of special note was George Keller’s stand out performance as Elena, who captured perfectly the hostile congeniality of the scene-chewing, stereotypical Latina talk show host.

As a Lebanese-American myself, I groaned at the terrorist, camel jockey jokes along with the rest of the audience but appreciated the challenge of facing the often hilarious hypocrisy of political correctness even while desiring to hold on to ethnic identities in our homogenized American pop culture and globalized society. In that regard, the play’s satire deals not only with the specificity of learning to be Latina, but also speaks to more general concerns of  identity and belonging.

The Mixed Blood Theatre also invites audiences to participate in discussions about show-related themes and topics following Sunday performances at 3 p.m. through May 13.  Take advantage of Mixed Blood’s Radical Hospitality, which allows free access to the performances regardless of need on a first-come, first-served basis.

Learn to be Latina by Enrique Urueta. Directed by Mark Valdez. April 20-May 13, 2012. Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 South Fourth Street, Minneapolis, MN 55455. Tickets: Free, under Mixed Blood’s “Radical Hospitality” program. Or $15 with reservation. Box office:  612-338-6131 or www.mixedblood.com.

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