Review: Steppenwolf’s I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter Is Nearly Perfect

Leslie Sophia Perez (Lorena) and Karen Rodriguez (Julia). Photo by Michael Brosilow.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is a pretty perfect play, full of youthful exuberance and teen angst, righteous anger and pure joy, and seasoned with tacos and horchata, bean burritos and flaming hot Cheetos (with lime juice, natch). The March 1 matinee audience was filled with teenaged girls, who willingly rode the roller coaster experience of being brown, female and young in America via the character of Julia, played to perfection by Karen Rodriguez. The packed house collectively nodded, clasped their hands and let loose audible gasps with every twist and turn of the story.

They understood.

Isaac Gomez adapted Chicago-born and based Erika L. Sanchez’s National Book Award finalist bildungsroman for the Steppenwolf for Young Adults program, producing two tight acts of funny, raunchy and tragic teen life in Chicago’s working-class neighborhoods. Under Sandra Marquez’s revelatory direction, on a simple Chicago-evocative set by Arnel Sancianco, the dynamic cast richly inhabit Julia’s narrative.

The 15-year-old Chicana’s older sister Olga has just died (Dyllan Rodrigues-Miller, who also plays multiple roles like the rest of the cast). Mom Ama (Charin Alvarez) and dad Apa (Eddie Martinez) are undocumented, hardworking and silently grief stricken. Her favorite English teacher Mr. Ingman (Peter Moore), hilarious best friends, sassy Lorena (Leslie Sophia Perez) and fabulous Juanga (Robert Quintanilla), and special new friend Connor (Harrison Weger) distract Julia from finding out more about her sister, and ultimately, herself.

Ama (Charin Alvarez) and Apa (Eddie Martinez). Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Julia is a writer and avid reader, and evokes Nancy Drew as she investigates her sister’s brief, mysterious life as well as her own. Her parents force her to have a Quinceañera celebration, even though she’s almost 16, and stuff her into a fluffy pink dress (costumes by Uriel Gomez). Nothing fits Julia. She endures a summer of estrangement, her mother destroys the budding writer’s journals and poems, and her boyfriend lives in faraway Evanston. She’s drowning, and every viewer can relate.

The audience is included throughout, as Julia narrates her inner turmoil and her outward love, regularly checking in to see if we understand. A silly, touching and poignant clothed sex scene is intimacy designed by Rachel Flesher. The literature Julia seeks at Myopic Books in Bucktown/Wicker Park mirror her desires: The Bluest Eye, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Awakening.

Robert Quintanilla as Juanga. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

The focus on the marginalized started even before the play began, when the pre-show announcement acknowledged that Steppenwolf sits on Native land, the traditional homelands of the Council of Three Fires people, including the Ojibwe, Potawatomi and Odawa. Illinois is home to over 100,000 tribal members. In this space, and this play in particular, all are welcome. And representation matters.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter runs at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, through April 5. Tickets are available online or by calling 312.335.1650. #mexicandaughterSYA 

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Karin McKie

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