Steppenwolf for Young Adult’s production of “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” has been extended once and, if my inside sources can be counted on, will likely be extended a second time. If you were to stop reading this review right now and head to Steppenwolf’s website you would, in all likelihood, encounter a small but unmistakable disclaimer that the run has sold out.
You may count me among the unsurprised. A theatrical production of an award-winning novel by a Chicago author with a beloved local playwright as its attentive adaptor, an ensemble member in the director’s chair and one of our city’s premier actors in its lead role? As the kids maybe still say: duh.
Erika L. Sánchez’s novel is a coming-of-age story based on specific yet ubiquitous real-life experiences that are nevertheless seldom seen on stage or screen. We follow Julia (as in hoo-lyah not joo-lee-uh) through the immediate and less-immediate aftermath of her sister Olga’s untimely death, as she packs and unpacks the suitcase of her grief as if on a trip she never agreed to take. The tragedy exacts itself on her Amá (Charín Alvarez) and Apá (Eddie Martinez) as well as friends and total strangers. Sánchez treats death with the absurdity it deserves: punches to the gut and chest at random, unpredictable intervals, like shadowboxing an unseen foe. The play begins with Julia pronouncing her envy of her dead sister, which successfully sets the tone for everything that follows.
Sánchez and playwright Isaac Gómez, who offers a thrifty and effective adaptation, honor Julia’s inner life by shifting between presentational realism and fourth wall breaks. It is in these latter moments where Karen Rodriguez’s talents truly shine, in tandem with Sandra Marquez’s understated direction. Enough cannot be said about Rodriguez, who, in addition to being welcomed into the Steppenwolf ensemble, has grown in leaps with every new production she is in. To badly paraphrase my younger peers once again, she’s so good it makes me want to puke. Abstaining from retching, my emissions instead took the form of laughter and tears and sometimes tears of laughter. Rodriguez leaves no comedic stone unturned, her delivery timed to absolute perfection. Lines like, “You want to know what kind of brown I am?” delivered deliciously deadpan but with a distinct undercurrent of irrepressible excitement, quivering with that unmistakable sense that the joke is going to land. And they do. In the past I have aired my grievances on the matter of adults playing adolescents but Rodriguez disappears into Julia so completely, seemingly well before we even meet her for the first time, that I am ready to disavow my former stance or at least make a significant exception. If you are in need of a reminder of the transcendent magic that is excellent acting, you need look no further than Rodriguez’s work here.
And while the orbit of the play revolves around her, Rodriguez receives quality support from Leslie Sophia Perez, as Julia’s best friend Lorena, and Robert Quintanilla as Juanga, a newcomer who Julia initially perceives as a threat before ultimately being won over. We too are won over, as Sánchez and Gómez deftly humanize characters that are treated as punchlines elsewhere. They are permitted a degree of economic but compelling complexity. Their sexual proclivity, spurred, at least in part, by patriarchal abuse, and performative confidence masks trauma that we glimpse briefly but indelibly. Juanga’s storyline is especially urgent in light of the recent murder of Kenneth Paterimos, one of the countless victims of homophobic and racial violence across our city and beyond.
There is a good deal of talk about representation in art and media, its impact on individuals and culture at large, but when it comes to narratives writers tend to take on only one lens at a time. Sánchez and Gómez, in contrast, honor the inner lives of everyone in this story. There are, thankfully, no white saviors here, only white people, in all our predictable and repetitive shortcomings. After his years spent toiling in despicable and otherwise unforgettably off-putting roles, it is a pleasure and a relief to see Peter Moore as Julia’s gentle English teacher, Mr. Ingman. After such labor, is there any actor currently working who is better equipped for the responsibility of portraying a fundamentally decent white guy? I implore you to find me a better option than Moore. As Julia’s boyfriend Connor, Harrison Weger is eager and sweet as he navigates his attraction to a person of another race (that zinger about “what kind of brown” Julia is was for him). In an ever-growing list of things that should no longer surprise us, Sánchez writes white boys better than most white boys do, or at least with considerably less carry-on baggage, cutting to the core of Connor’s character with ease: his natural confidence, a byproduct of his privilege, and the comfort with which he moves through and inhabits the world. Julia gives him a satisfying dressing down late in the play as he begins to make more demands of her, always in the name of love. It’s not ugly but it is certainly telling. Sánchez honors his feelings too, even if they are instinctively possessive and shaded by misunderstanding, before swiftly returning our attention to her compelling antiheroine.
There is great care taken and thus great pleasure in the details of “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter.” Having listed off a handful of her most cherished books to him, Connor quickly claims to have read all but one of Julia’s favorites: Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” coincidentally the only book in her list written by an author of color. The moment serves as a nod to the ubiquity of representatives in art for young men who look like Connor and the relative dearth for women like Julia, a syndrome of pervasive racism and sexism that Sánchez, like so many women of color, likely has had firsthand experience with. The play teases the idea of cultural exchange and whether or not it can effectively work both ways. We are accustomed to seeing white people claim cultures outside of their own—Whole Foods horchata latte, anyone—but the meaning changes when the actions and dynamics are reversed. Julia goes everywhere in a T-shirt printed with the album cover of “Unknown Pleasures” by Joy Division, a band that arguably set the template for a brand of moody, emotionally driven rock that would become a defining feature for certain predominantly white cis male subcultures. At one point, she professes her love of David Bowie, an artist with the actual moniker “The Thin White Duke.” And neither Joy Division nor David Bowie would have existed at all without the contributions of people of color to the canon of so-called Western music. Black and brown people are regularly denied visibility in territories defined, by default, as being white—rock ‘n’ roll, fantasy fandom, high-end grocery chains, the list goes on and on—despite the pervasive irony that many of those same spaces wouldn’t even exist were it not for their contributions at early and vital stages of development, their roles all but erased in order to maintain the sanctimonious illusion of white supremacy.
It is in this way that the space Julia claims quietly and instinctively is as thrilling as that which she declares boldly and without apology. She is a feminist lynchpin, a past, present and future firebrand and also a woman who will likely be judged for her entire life by the body she inhabits. The tragedy lying in wait for Julia is that despite how passionate or put together she may be or become, her reality can be swiftly curtailed by those who refuse to acknowledge the places where she does not meet their preconceived expectations. And while the active and passive racial and sexual violence that dominate our culture may be her most visible threats, they are not the only forces shaping her reality. Her community and family have an effect as well, complicated further by the bifurcated immigrant experience of not feeling totally from “here” or of “there,” caught perpetually between two experiences of the world and seemingly contradictory identities. And while she is certainly vulnerable, Julia actively refuses to be defined by her potential for victimhood, at times to the detriment of her ability to ask for help. As those from our most marginalized communities perhaps best understand, when you are taught from a very young age to be invulnerable, the emotional access you will need later in life to be honest with yourself and others becomes that much harder to procure. We understand who Julia is not because we witness her most important and cathartic moments but because we witness her period, at moments of climactic action and relative stasis alike. The internal rhythm of “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” hews more closely to daily life than to fantasies of timely revelation and, further far fetched still, reconciliatory wish fulfillment found elsewhere in art and media.
Like much professional direction, Sandra Marquez’s influence on this production is largely invisible, save for moments of movement and grace. Julia’s sexual encounter with Connor is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen on stage in a long time and Marquez’s use of space to suggest and contrast emotional distance and closeness is elegant and exceptional. A prolonged dance sequence in the play’s middle won me over even further and an understated crisis toward its conclusion was penetrating and evocative while effectively resisting a gravitational pull toward melodrama. Much is accomplished in this production’s ninety minutes, which pass fleetingly like the view from the El on a brilliant late afternoon. Sánchez puts it perfectly, “When the sun sets in Chicago, the buildings look like they’re on fire.” So too does this production dazzle in its blinding brilliance.
If there is a coup among coups in Sánchez’s book, it is how she writes about Chicago. Gómez, Marquez and the play’s designers—particularly set designer Arnel Sancianco—honor the decision to set the story unequivocally here, in the Chicago that unfolds before our very eyes every day. The land of gentrification, where rising rents drive Latinx families out of their neighborhoods, businesses and homes, only to witness those things replaced by facsimiles of their culture. It is a daily insult and a persistent injustice, one that I, and many of the regular guests to Steppenwolf and theater companies across the city, contribute to. Even the staging here is not without the potential for political conflict, as there may be those who view this play’s production at a predominantly white artistic institution as evidence of a kind of cultural capitulation. Should it exist, that criticism needs to be heard and registered. As Steppenwolf and others continue to engage with the idea that in order to change who is in their audience they must first fundamentally address who is on their stages (this means all of their stages, as the company is currently in the midst of expanding their campus once again), the lessons of plays like “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” must be recognized and internalized, just as the experiences of the human beings upon which these stories are based must be as well. (Kevin Greene)
Steppenwolf for Young Adults at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1600 North Halsted, (312)335-1650, steppenwolf.org, $15-$30. Extended through April 5.