The department of theater and dance spring production “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents” would have been a trailblazer for the University of Richmond as the first bilingual play presented on campus. Its April 16 opening night was halted by the transition to remote learning, but its impact lives on with the cast.
The play, which was written by Karen Zacarías and based on a Julia Álvarez’s novel of the same name, was directed by theater professor Walter Schoen. It follows the Garcia girls, four sisters who emigrate from the Dominican Republic to New York City in the 1960s, according to the Modlin Center for the Arts. They’ve come to the United States because of political strife and personal danger in their homeland, according to the Modlin Center.
Senior Maria Acosta was cast to play Yolanda, the main character and one of the four Garcia girls, Acosta said.
“This play would have highlighted not only a cultural story, but a narrative about immigration, assimilation and the difficulty of growing up and being different,” Acosta said.
Sophomore Esmeralda Castillo was cast as Doña Charito, the Garcia girls’ English teacher, Castillo said.
“The play is a story of girls growing up between two cultures,” Castillo said. “As they emigrated from the Dominican Republic from such a young age, they have to find ways to stay connected to their roots and honor those traditions and values but in America. Once they are teenagers, they become more assimilated to American culture and it turns into a story about losing your roots.”
Some of the cast members said they had felt emotionally attached to the play, as many identified as Latinx and had an understanding of what it means to be between two cultures.
“I come from Dominican and Puerto Rican background[s],” Acosta said. “This has a lot of emotional impact for me because I have never seen any theater about a Dominican family. Seeing it onstage is revolutionary for UR but also for my own experience.”
Identity struggle was something that cast members identified with, Castillo said.
“I identify as Mexican American even though I wasn't born in Mexico, but I don’t feel fully American because I grew up with those cultures,” Castillo said. “It was also fascinating to see the mix of Spanish and English in the play, and it accurately portrays how we speak as Hispanic students at UR.”
Patricia Herrera, professor of theater, said she had seen the growth in Latinx students during her 10 years at UR.
“It is important to provide those students a chance to relate to things at their school,” she said. “The play is an opportunity for [Latinx students] to affirm their experiences, regardless if they are Dominican or not but through the fact that it is a part of the Latinx culture.”
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Castillo said that this affirmation also extended beyond the cast and into the audience.
“It being a bilingual play brings another layer because we’ve never done one before, and all of the Latinx community that is at UR was very excited about it,” Castillo said. “It felt like it was honoring [the Latinx community] in a way that UR had never recognized them before and like it was a special acknowledgement that even if they aren’t Dominican or an immigrant that this identity is a part of them and they get to see that performed proudly.”
After racist incidents on campus earlier in the semester, the department of theater and dance changed its mission statement to be more inclusive, Herrera said.
“We are committed to diversity, inclusion, equity and social justice,” according to the department of theater and dance. “These values are central to the department’s curriculum, scholarship, teaching, artmaking practices and programming.”
The department's commitment to its new mission statement was shown through the play.
“It was a great experience working with colleagues like director Walter Schoen who are also willing to take the risk as a learning opportunity to create a curriculum that is inclusive,” Herrera said. “We were trying to understand, ‘How do we create conversation that will make all students feel included even if you are not Latinx?’”
Herrera said she worked with cast members to help them identify with the story by discussing historical context and Dominican cultural norms and traditions. Herrera invited Latin American, Latino and Iberian studies faculty members Dixon Abreu, director of Portuguese, and Karina Vazquez, director of community-based learning, to share their experiences as immigrants with the cast and increase the cast’s understanding of the immigrant experience, she said.
The cast took part in other activities to immerse themselves in Dominican culture.
“We all participated in a merengue workshop to learn how to dance properly, as there are moments in the play when the family or certain characters dance,” Acosta said. “We also had a dinner where we ate rice and beans and seasoned meats as culturally appropriate foods in relation to the identity of our characters.”
Although the cast had only begun rehearsing the script one week before spring break, its members worked hard to prepare for the production.
“The first week was the kickstart to the most fun rehearsal process I have ever been a part of,” Acosta said. “In the first week, we got a taste of all of the excitement of the cast and got to understand how much work it will be. But that work would have been worth it because it would have also been so much fun. We got a taste of it but never got a chance to really give it our all.”
Schoen said the department of theater and dance would work to salvage some of the work by presenting a special staged reading in the fall with the cast members who could participate, recognizing that the seniors would miss that opportunity.
Contact contributor Claire Paulhac at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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