Ethnical Difficulties

24. February, 2010 Theater 4 comments

It’s funny that the night after I saw The Breach, in which racist imagery is offered up as an exhibit of the continuing harmful legacy of slavery, I’d see a show that’s also critiquing ethnic stereotypes, this time by gleefully reveling in their very offensiveness. Impact Theatre’s world premiere of Enrique Urueta’s Learn to Be Latina is an often screamingly funny show offering a heaping helping of “oh no he didn’t,” plus what’s no doubt the most priceless glory hole moment I’ve ever seen on stage.

Andrew Calabrese, Jon Nagel, Emily Rosenthal and Carlye Pollack in Learn to Be Latina. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs

Jesse B. Miller’s simple set turns Impact’s black-box space in the basement of La Val’s Pizza into a stark corporate white box. At a long table sit a trio of record execs in matching gray suits, who almost always move as a unit and finish each other’s sentences like Huey, Dewey and Louie. They’re staring impassively past Hanan, an aspiring pop starlet who’s apparently just played her demo for them. (We never once hear Hanan sing, appropriately enough for an industry in which the package is the product.) As she squirms in nervousness bordering on hysteria, waiting for them to say something, she lets loose with a dizzying deluge of logorrhea about how her demo was recorded by her “quote-friend” who used to be her boyfriend until she walked in on him “getting totally George Michaeled.”

This first scene is impressive just in the way the words spill speedily out of Hanan almost without taking a breath, but it’s not the strongest introduction to director Mary Guzmán’s fast-paced staging, because the way the execs stare is so unnaturally robotic. Fortunately, Jon Nagel, Emily Rosenthal and Andrew Calabrese turn out to be priceless as the seemingly interchangeable industry suits Bill, Jill and Will, who become more distinct despite themselves as things develop, or rather as they unravel. They break into hysterically deadpan hip-hop dance routines choreographed by Rami Margron and blithely reel off more ethnic stereotypes than you might think possible—a guy in a luchador mask juggling tortillas, for instance.

“Why, some of our best friends are…like you,” Bill tells Hanan. “Well, by some I mean none, but if they were, they would be.”

The reason for all this appallingness is that they think Hanan’s got what it takes to be a big star, but they’re horrified to learn she’s Lebanese American—like hiding-under-the-desk horrified, in case she’s carrying a bomb. “She’s a bit ethnic,” one explains—“and not in a fun way,” another adds. But hard-boiled “ethnic consultant” Mary O’Malley slaps them into shape, saying they can use her if they can only train her to pretend to be Latina.

Carlye Pollack is marvelous as Hanan, with a swagger and broad flirty smirk that makes it totally believable that she’d have the “it” factor for pop stardom. (And Miyuki Bierlein’s snazzy costumes don’t hurt.) If Melanie Salazar Case isn’t as fearsome as überbitch Mary as her minions make her out to be, she’s formidable in her profane rants delivered in a thick Irish accent (which is also terribly inconsistent, but there’s some in-story justification for that) and a Cuban sock puppet that does half the talking for her. She’s particularly good in a side role as Elena, a parody of talk show host Cristina.

Marilet Martinez is a strong, self-assured presence as love interest Blanca—or as she’s usually called, Office Bitch—the only character in the play who’s not a cartoon and a grounding presence for Hanan if she’s ever interested in being grounded. She becomes Hanan’s dirty little secret—one of them, anyway—after they bond over their mutual love of Jem and the Holograms.

Even as it goes way over the top in its broad comedy, Learn to Be Latina is in many ways a classic rise-and-fall story of naked ambition, laced with ’80s pop culture references and movie-style montages. It’s definitely not for the easily offended, between the filthy snappy patter and the way Urueta really lays into stereotypes with gusto, much more so than Lauren Yee’s 2008 Impact hit Ching Chong Chinaman. And much like Hanan herself, it’s sure to be a hit.

Learn to Be Latina
Through April 2
La Val’s Subterranean
1834 Euclid St.
Berkeley, CA

Show #21 of 2010, attended February 20.

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  1. 2 / 24 / 2010 4:17 pm

    I am so looking forward to this show. I’ve seen previous incarnations (the one act version and a staged reading of an early draft of the full length) and both times I was in stitches laughing.


    • Sam Hurwitt

      2 / 24 / 2010 4:25 pm

      I hardly ever get to see shows until they reach this stage, alas, just because I’m so dang busy with the full productions. But it’s definitely one well worth checking out.


  2. 2 / 27 / 2010 11:14 am

    I really liked this one a lot – people should go see it! I think my favorite moment was the lengthy, fast-as-lightning string of racist expletives that seemed to go out of its way to offend everyone, no matter their ethnic background.





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