Getting Philo-Tropical

Maria Costa's one-woman show portrays the obstacles Latinas must overcome for self-reliance and self-respect

By By Phillip Serrato
Published on LatinoLA: June 4, 2001

Getting Philo-Tropical

Since the 1980s and the emergence of Latina feminism, there has been an increasing amount of critical attention devoted to gender roles and expectations in Latino cultures. Led by noted theorists Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga, Latina feminists in the 1980s began talking about their personal experiences as women to expose and critique the oppression and abuse that Latinas often endure.
This critical work also initiated the exploration of how masculinity is usually defined in Latino cultures and how the patriarchal organization of the family affects both men and women as well as their sons and daughters. Over the last ten years, there has been more and more discussion about Latino masculinity by both male and female critics and artists in an effort to understand how it works in Latino cultures and how Latino men are pressured to be "real men." One consequence of this increased examination of Latino masculinity is a growing recognition that it can and must take new forms.
The one-woman show Afro-Spic starring Maria Costa clearly follows in the footsteps of the Latino/a gender studies work of the last two decades. Advertised as a "comedic journey of Latina liberation and taming the macho man," Mambo Jumbo primarily attempts to portray the obstacles and anxieties that Latinas must overcome as they struggle to arrive at a sense of self-reliance and, ultimately, self-respect. Toward the end the show begins turning toward an exploration and critique of machismo. Overall, the show is driven by good intentions and is marked by some outstanding features. However, Afro-Spic really does not break any new critical ground, and over the last few pieces its focus gets a bit muddled as it tries to cover too much ground.
Costa is definitely the right person for this show. Her dexterous ability to nail-down the idiosyncrasies of the different characters that she portrays in the eight pieces helps her to convey an appropriate emotional depth for each one. Unfortunately, on the night that I saw the show Costa performed to a painfully small audience that did not provide her with much energy to feed off of. The fact that her performance space was the second floor of a restaurant did not help either, and ultimately it felt like this critical work deserved a different context.
The show opens boisterously with Costa leading a line of four Afro-Cuban drummers. As she makes her way through the audience, she stops to gyrate in front of or with a few people. This is an effective way to begin, for it captures the audience's attention and, as often occurs when Latin music is played, triggers a powerful sense of latinidad amongst those in attendance. By tapping into a Latino consciousness at the outset, a receptive audience gets secured for the first piece, "Libre Como el Viento."
In this opening piece, Costa is Rebecca Gonzalez, a Cubana who invites the audience to party with her because she has just graduated from high school. At first she tells the audience how happy she was strutting across the stage at the graduation ceremony "waving and feeling sexy." This narrative soon devolves, however, into a confession about her relationship with her abusive husband Pedrito who "has a lot of fucked up shit to deal with." Thus in this very first piece, we meet a Latina who clings to an ethos of "pa'delante" yet is violently prevented from realizing her full potential by a man in her life who clings to an ethos of machismo. The conspiracy of culture and tradition with the containment of Latinas is next thrown into relief when Rebecca relates that in a vision she had her mother basically dismissed Pedrito's reprehensibility by saying that all that matters is that he loves her.
But it turns out that instead of being completely cornered by her lover, family, and cultural tradition, Rebecca -- drawing courage from her perfectly-chosen hero, Tina Turner -- opted to liberate herself and knock out Pedrito. As the drummers burst into playing their rhythms at this point in the narration as a type of celebration of Rebecca's strength, I was thinking that the current hit "Survivor" by Destiny's Child would have been appropriate, too.
The next three pieces -- "Diva," "R.E.S.P.E.C.T.," and "Pelo Malo" -- continue to foreground the theme of Latina self-respect. In "Pelo Malo," Costa is a Chicana child named Marisela who, already at her young age, is acutely aware that her dark skin is not "beautiful." "R.E.S.P.E.C.T." effectively uses irony to make its point about the importance of Latina self-respect. In this piece, Costa is a self-proclaimed strong Latina who ultimately is a conflicted heroine. At the same time that this woman assertively yells out to her boyfriend, "Nigger, wait!" she fusses over looking beautiful in an effort to secure a man who will make her feel "loved, desired, and treated like a lady." At the end of the piece she strikes a pose and asks, "How do I look? Beautiful, huh? Something missing?" and she then proceeds to remove her jacket to expose some more skin. Of course, the irony and point is that what is missing is some self-respect.
In my opinion, the smartest moment of the show occurs in "Diva." "Diva" is about a woman who has a feminist consciousness yet is simply unable to escape completely macho domination. As she relates, "I went to the testosterone dark side and I loved it. Yes, me, a strong woman fell for a macho." This piece effectively portrays a Latina feminist who is unable to enjoy a heterosexual desire that does not compromise her politics, and it thus captures a vexing issue that continues to be debated within feminist circles. At one point Costa mimics sex with her macho lover, and goes from being on top and approaching orgasm to being brought down, turned around, and entered from behind. On all fours pretending that her lover is forcefully thrusting into her, Costa uncomfortably reveals to the audience that her macho man wants her to be a wife, cook, and the mother of his children. Although this simulation of sex seemed to make a few people in the audience uncomfortable, it was a brilliantly pornographic metaphor for the multi-leveled (re)subordination of this Latina.
Over the rest of the show, the play's focus gets dispersed. Latinos in Hollywood, Latino homosexuality, and Latino machismo are the subjects of the next three pieces. In particular, "Hispanic American Princess" -- which suggests that if Latinos/as want to work in Hollywood they can either bleach their hair and act white or play the parts of criminals -- seemed to swerve too far from the trajectory that the first three pieces establish.
With "Perfectly Fabulous" and "Confessions of a Macho," the show comes back to its emphasis on gender roles and expectations by attending briefly to Latino masculinity. In "Perfectly Fabulous," we are introduced to Lola, a Cuban-Nuyorican drag queen who "tried for years to be the man that [my father] wanted me to be" but years ago liberated himself from compulsory heterosexuality and embraced his queer identity. In "Confessions of a Macho," Lola's aging father reveals how he has been a macho (e.g., he is unsure of how many illegitimate children he has fathered) yet at the very end manages to tell Lola, "I love you."
This understated moment of change sets up Costa's spoken-word poem, "AFROSPIC," in which she talks about the necessity of change in the face of the fear of change. A few factors, however, get in the way of the poem being as inspiring as it could have been. First of all, the call for change would feel more urgent if the play itself had a tighter focus. Because of the dispersal of the play's focus over the last half, the call to change in "AFROSPIC" feels too general.
Also, the concluding call for change is not unfamiliar. In many ways, Mambo Jumbo reperforms work that others have done. Many writers have already talked about the disparagement of the brown body inside and outside of Latino cultures, and the Hollywood dilemma/problem is constantly under discussion. Moreover, "Libre Como el Viento," "Diva," "R.E.S.P.E.C.T.," "Perfectly Fabulous," and "Confessions of a Macho" echo a bit too much the performance work of Luis Alfaro and John Leguizamo, especially the latter's Mambo Mouth and Freak.
Of course, it is perfectly possible that for some who see Mambo Jumbo the show is an exhilarating introduction to the critical issues that for others are not so new.
And really, what more could we ask for?

About By Phillip Serrato:
Afro Spic plays Saturdays at 7 p.m.. HudsonMainstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 323 288-9034. Reservations encouraged. $10.
Phillip Serrato can be reached at phillip_serrato@msn.com

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