The Destinos Latino Theater Festival is Chicago’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, and the Goodman Theatre’s offering is American Mariachi, a co-production with the Dallas Theater Center.
Henry Godinez directs and Victor Pichardo music directs the script by Jose Cruz Gonzalez, which follows Lucha (vibrant Tiffany Solano) as she cares for her mother Amalia (Gigi Cervantes) while she slips into dementia. Her husband Federico (Ricardo Gutierrez) is mostly gone, touring with his mariachi band, and holding a grudge against his former best friend, music store owner Mino (Bobby Plasencia).
While the men are away, the women decide they want to play—mariachi, that is, the traditional Mexican music form where females rarely participate. In order to activate her mother’s memory via music, Lucha enlists her best friend and cousin Boli (Lucy Godinez), along with shy singer Isabel (Molly Hernandez), poor Spanish-speaking goofball Gabby (Amanda Raquel Martinez), and beauty-shop-owner Soyla (Gloria Vivica Benavides) to assemble an all-female band to reconstruct some meaningful music that was lost.
It’s the 1970s (with fabulous fringed period costumes by Danielle Nieves), so the women are discouraged as they practice in secret for their debut at a quinceañera for twins. Set designer Linda Buchanan’s blocky houses along the back wall feature illuminated windows that seem to be eyes watching the family as they dial the avocado-colored rotary phone, the men play under neon club signs like El Azeteca and El Gato Negro (and a Boycott Grapes sign in the music shop), and the Mariachi de Mujeres learn to play the guitarrón, the large, fretless six-string bass guitar that is the “heartbeat” of this music; the vihuela (five-string guitar), a regular six-string acoustic guitar, violin and trumpet (the male band also includes a stand-up harp).
The message of female empowerment is forefront, yet the stories are through a male lens. The play’s action is surrounded and scored by a male mariachi band—excellent musicians, wearing snazzy black costumes adorned with silver buckles, but the internal and external story facilitators and framers are mostly male, undercutting the “hermanas are doing it for themselves” ethos.
For instance, Amalia is haunted by Tia Carmen, her ghostly violinist aunt played in Día de los Muertos makeup by Erendira Izguerra, whose bio says she founded Chicago’s first all-woman Mariachi Sirenas in 2017. She also founded the first college group in the state, UIC Mariachi Fuego in 2014, and teaches mariachi music and history. This production addresses the need for Latinx programming in this white-dominant landscape, yet perhaps more female leadership like that could better support the women-centric message.
American Mariachi would be an excellent double bill this Halloween season with the Pixar movie Coco, as both focus on Mexican families, trauma and loss, and musical celebrations by, about and for those who have gone before. The production runs at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., through October 24. Tickets are available online or at 312-443-3800.
Destinos: The 4th Chicago International Latino Theater Festival officially runs through October 17, although La Gran Tirana: Descarga dramática runs at Aguijon Theater through November 21.
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