I paint in scribe colors—the black of this ink, the red of those fires—my own Chicano codex . . .
“The Chicano codex is a portrait of our daily lives. Images of spam next to a stack of store-bought tortillas . . . We pick nopales, graduate from college . . .
In the circle of this oración, we form a contemporary urban Chicano glyph. A small group of jotería, “two-spirited” people, standing in the shadow de Los Pechos de La India (San Francisco). Two lush green mounds of female protection. A radio tower piercing her breast.” (Cherríe Moraga, from “Codex Xerí: El Momento Histórico,” The Last Generation)
This section from Moraga’s essay in The Last Generation “was originally written for the Mexican Museum’s 1992 ‘Chicano Codices Encountering Art of the Américas,’ curated by Marcos Sánchez-Tranquilino. Representing twenty-five Chicano artists from across the United States, the exhibit’s task was to create a contemporary response to the Mesoamerican codices, the pictorial record books of Indigenous America though largely destroyed by the fires of the Spanish conquest.”
Perhaps this essay gave Moraga a foundation from which to create (20 years later) a play based on the Maya “Calendar Round,” a 52-year cycle. (This Calendar Round was also used by Aztec, Mixtec, and Zapotec tribes.) Moraga translates “the red of those fires—my own Chicano codex” to the stage with NEW FIRE: To Put Things Right Again at the BRAVA Theater in San Francisco. She invites her audience to participate along with the main character, Vero, a woman who is about to turn 52, in remembering and confronting the past, in spewing out all of what needs to be ejected in order to heal.
In my interview with Moraga two weeks ago (CLICK HERE for interview), she said, “This play is very demanding of the audience . . . it’s not like a good time . . . it really moves and has the promise of moving the soul. And of course it’s entertaining—incredible music, dance, acting—but the intention is to move things around in the gut, the head, in the spirit.”
Indeed, this is not at all a play using Aristotelian classical unities but instead, Moraga surrounds Vero’s slow journey to conscious awakening with poignant moments of indigenous ritual: call and response, dance, chanting, singing, and the frightening guides Itzpapalotl and Tzitzimitl who come to reclaim Vero (so well done with music, lighting, and luminous costuming). All work “in the round” to give us a very different concept of theater. It is and it is not theater. It is sacred indigenous ritual both on stage and on screen. Two large screens on either side of the stage serve to provide a visual of ceremony outside while dance and song also echo on stage: an inner and outer honoring, cleansing.
I kept thinking about sections from Chicana writer Eden Torres’ book, Chicana Without Apology because they speak to various sections of the play. Specifically this section from Torres’ book connects with Vero’s memories of violations within and outside of the home (the stepfather and incest, rape at 17). Torres writes: “If we avoid grieving, which necessarily includes thinking about the trauma, then we never face the injured Self. Failure to do so can result in inappropriate emotional responses to stimuli in our everyday lives. We may feel overwhelmed by little things that go wrong, yet unaffected by major crisis . . . Rage may be directed at a child who spills milk, while we exhibit numb indifference to spousal violation . . . History and tradition are part of our present and our future . . . In order for us to be able to help succeeding generations make healthy connections to our spiritual mothers and blended cultural traditions (Indian, Spanish, Mestizo, and the United States), we have to deal with our own wounds.” (35-40)
From Borderlands/La Frontera: “I acknowledge that the self and the race have been wounded . . . On that day I gather the splintered and disowned parts of la gente mexicana and hold them in my arms. Todas las partes de nosotros valen . . . I will not be shamed again/Nor will I shame myself. I am possessed by a vision: that we Chicanas and Chicanos have taken back or uncovered our true faces.” (87-8)
art piece by Celia Herrera Rodríguez
At the end of the play, I didn’t want to leave the theater. I had been sitting with friends who included writer and activist Jewelle Gomez and Sylvie Walters from France who is now living in San Francisco. Sylvie was amazed and quite moved by the play but wished, as Jewelle and I had also wished—that there might have been a Q&A afterwards (we didn’t go on a night they were having a “TalkBack”—but I feel every performance would have benefited from a "TalkBack"). The play was so remarkably different that we wanted to have a dialogue—to hear what other people thought. Sylvie was not happy about, what she felt to be, a very short round of applause for the actors. She explained that in France (and various other countries—including my own frame of reference: Mexico) the audience will clap for five minutes or more at a time. The actors will leave but then will return for more applause. Gifts are distributed to the players and more applause follows. She felt that such a short round of applause and then watching the audience get up and leave so soon did not honor the long hours the actors/staff had put into the production. She wanted to stay in the atmosphere, the sound and feelings she was experiencing. She wanted to honor them with her presence. So we sat and talked while keeping our eyes on the stage, watching the actors come out, the back stage members prepare the stage for the next performance. We sat for a good while talking and thinking about what we had just seen. We all agreed that the combination of ritual, song, and story opens various perspectives on identity, social traumas, and healing. We also discussed our own personal journeys of migration, identity, healing. The three of us were “doing” one of the repeated lines from the play: creating “our small nation of remember.”
A few days later, Robert Hurwitt, Theater Critic for The San Francisco Chronicle weighed in with his review of the play as “inspired and beautiful.” However, he felt the indigenous rituals “overwhelm[ed] the theatrical,” and they took too long therefore “shut(ing) out those who aren’t already convinced of its message.” I go back to Cherrie’s interview with me and how she said this play is not for a mainstream audience (white, middle class). "They are not our base," she said. The play is on Indian/Mexica time, not European western-theater time. It is an invitation for Chicanas y Chicanos/ Latinas y Latinos, individuals of color, to participate, witness, and understand the wounds Vero has carried for 51 years and finally expunges on the 52nd, and the kind of NEW FIRE all of us need under our feet in order “to put things right again" and the importance of coming into community to speak and share. Moraga points out the importance of returning to our community, to our raza to do this.
Celia Herrera Rodríguez and Adelina Anthony
There is a wonderful short video (accompanied by Erika Vivianna Céspedes' great blog on the play) with Adelina Anthony and Cherrie Moraga further explaining NEW FIRE. This is a great little video because it also includes individuals who were interviewed right after seeing the play--right outside the theater. It's inspiring to see these individuals so filled with the spirit of what NEW FIRE offers.
And we, the Codex-Makers, remove the white mask.
We wait and watch the horizon.
Our Olmeca third eye
begins to glisten
in the slowly
New Fire—“To Put Things Right Again” plays for one more week. DON’T MISS IT!!
Sunday, January 22, 3p.m. Matinee (with Talkback)
Monday, January 23, 8p.m. (Industry Night with Talkback)
Friday, January 27, 8p.m. (with Talkback)
Saturday, January 28, 8p.m.
Sunday, January 29, 3p.m. Matinee (with Talkback) CLOSING
Brava Theater, 2781 24th St. (at York), San Francisco, California
Brava Box Office: 415-647-2882 / www.brava.org