In the lobby of the Victory Gardens Theater, I stood in line at the box office behind a group of eight or so Latina women as they greeted one another, introduced members of the group to others, and chatted in rapid Spanglish. My head spun. With just enough high school Spanish under my belt to be able to follow the average telenovela, my brain kept trying (and failing) to switch been translating Spanish and listening to English, and I just couldn’t keep up.
That’s okay, I thought, picking up my tickets. That conversation wasn’t meant for me in the first place.
But like the dumb shows performed before Shakespeare’s plays, that overheard conversation at the box office turned out to be a succinct summary of the performance ahead.
I have a confession to make. I am terrible—and I mean completely and totally wretched—at understanding dialects. Anything besides the flat Midwestern accent I grew up with leaves me blinking and asking the speaker to repeat themselves. It’s an awful quality; at its most harmless, it has me watching episodes of Doctor Who with the subtitles on, and it at its worst, it comes off as racist and judgmental of those who speak English as a second language.
I’m sorry, I often want to tell people. It’s not you; it’s me! Your English is great! I’m the one who sucks!
Ashes of Light is not the first play where I lost about 40% of the dialogue to my own inability to decipher dialects. I have the same problem at Irish Repertory Theatre or during the first half of My Fair Lady. But here it feels even more unfair—unfair that I, lily-white, dialect-challenged—should be the person charged with the task of evaluating the quality of this show, when, through no fault of the play or its creators, I missed so many of the words being spoken.
This work is part of the first-ever Chicago International Latino Theater Festival. It’s an exciting endeavor, and in a city where Latinos are the second-largest racial group and make up nearly 30% of the population, it’s high time stories rooted in the experiences of Latinx folks are given the spotlight they deserve in Chicago.
When I was presented with the opportunity to review parts of the festival, I knew I wasn’t the right person for the job. While I (foolishly, perhaps) didn’t account for my dialect problem or my struggles with Spanglish (the show advertises as containing “sprinkles of Spanish,” but really, it’s more like a hot fudge topping of Spanish), I knew that just by virtue of being white, I probably wasn’t the best critic to send to this festival.
I also knew that the rest of the core theatre reviewing staff for Chicago Splash was also white, and that if I turned down the opportunity, it was entirely possible that the shows I was interested in wouldn’t get coverage from our magazine at all. And that seemed like a wasted opportunity to give the festival publicity.
With all of that in mind, here’s what I enjoyed about Ashes of Light.
-It has the makings of a great story. The script, like many world premieres, could probably use more development, but a play about a Dominican mother and her son, reunited after years apart and struggling to connect in the face of personal and cultural differences, is a compelling one, with seeds of universality that speak to the story’s potential.
-The characters are colorful and complex. Tía Divina, who appears in the second scene, lights up the stage with her enthusiastic singing and dancing and has the lion’s share of funny moments in the show. Actor Martiza Nazario brings great energy and vivacity to the role, and she’s just plain fun to watch. Both strong-willed, working-class mother Luz and reserved, theatre-loving son Julio are complex and interesting characters, and the dynamic between them captures beautifully the generational differences that so many of us struggle with.
-The show’s final moment. It’s simple, but it wraps up the work in a way that is satisfying and lovely.
Here’s what fell flat for me:
-The production values. The set design, by Caswell James, captures in careful detail the atmosphere of the small, cluttered Chicago apartment, which creates an expectation of verisimilitude that isn’t found in the props (empty water glasses and bare plates of food are the worst offenders) or sound design (the same generic city soundscape plays in the background the entire show, which grew tiresome, especially in emotionally intense moments).
-The fight choreography. There’s a slap in one scene that just…isn’t good.
-Line issues. At one point, the actors playing Luz and Julio repeated a conversation they’d had earlier word-for-word, a product, I assume, of a short rehearsal process, but it was so disorienting it threw me off for the rest of the show.
But at the end of the day, the people whose opinion really mattered? The Latinx folks in the audience, the women at box office whose conversation I’d been so confused by? It seemed, from my outside perspective anyway, that they loved it. They laughed at jokes I didn’t understand. They stuck around for the talkback afterward. During the preshow remarks, they nodded along in agreement when the festival’s founder talked about how important it is to create and support work like this.
Ashes of Light wasn’t written for me. Hell, nothing in the Chicago International Latino Theater Festival was written for me. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. In fact, it has more value because it centers on the experiences of people who aren’t white and wealthy—people whose stories have dominated the stage for far too long. Representation matters. So, too, does Ashes of Light.
Remaining performances: Saturday, Oct. 21, 8 pm; Sunday, Oct. 22, 2:30 pm
Tickets: $25 or $20 each for groups of 8 or more. $5 for students and seniors. For tickets and more information, visit the Chicago Latino Theater Alliance website.
All photos by Anthony Aicardi.