April 26, 2016 | Theatre,
Evelina Fernández: Scripting New Roles for Latino Actors with Premeditation
The following was originally published in GESTOS, a multi-lingual journal devoted to critical studies of Spanish, Latin American and US Latino theater.
Evelina Fernández is a longstanding Chicana teatrista, who has been involved in various aspects of theater and film making in Los Angeles —as a theater and film actress, a playwright, a film and television script writer, and an activist— since the late seventies. She is first and foremost one of the founding members of the Latino Theater Company (LTC), where she is playwright-in-residence. Fernández has written at least a dozen major plays and has received accolades and prestigious awards, such as the “L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Writing of a World Premiere Play” (2012) for A Mexican Trilogy. Still, most of her plays are not yet published or not easily accessible, and most commentaries on her work are found in L.A. based theater reviews, online pieces, and interviews. The timely publication of Premeditation in this edition of Gestos —its staged production described as a “Chicano-Noir inspired journey through the intricacies of marriage” (LATC)— is a momentous opportunity to get acquainted with Fernández’s artistic trajectory, her work, and her important place in Chicano/Latino theater.
Fernández, who was born and raised in East Los Angeles, started writing short stories and delivering speeches in elementary school, and became interested in theater during her years at Garfield High. During the course of her studies at California State University, Los Angeles, she got involved in the Chicano movement, and consequently, in Chicano theater. While at Cal State, Fernández auditioned and was cast in the leading role of Della in Luis Valdez’s historic staging of Zoot Suit, which opened in 1978 at the Mark Taper Forum. By 1981, Fernández had become a member of the legendary Teatro de la Esperanza, which at the time was located in Santa Barbara. Her acquaintance with Teatro Campesino and Teatro de la Esperanza influenced her theater themes and aesthetic views, and made it possible for her to establish long-term personal and working relationships. These included Mexican director José Luis Valenzuela (whom she married), and long time fellow actors Sal López, Geoffrey Rivas, Lucy Rodríguez, and Lupe Ontiveiros (d. 2012), founding members of the Latino Theater Company (LTC), all of whom she considers her theater family (Fernández, “In Her Own Words”). In 1985, Fernández relocated to Los Angeles and has been a member of this important theater group. Her plays have been influenced and molded by the collaborative work method of the ensemble, as she specifically writes for the actors in the group.
Today, the LTC is at the forefront of Chicano/Latino theater in Los Angeles. The Company operates the Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC), and their programming brings together diverse Angeleno ethnic communities. The LATC’s annual presentation of La Virgen de Guadalupe, Dios Inantzin— adapted by Fernández from the 16th century text Nican Mopohua and consisting of more than 100 actors, singers and dancers— reenacts the story of Juan Diego’s vision of the Virgin of Guadalupe. This theatrical tradition is staged in Spanish in early December, free of charge, at the altar of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, and it has attracted thousands of viewers since 2002. Aside from its involvement in themes relevant to the Latino communities of Los Angeles, the LATC is also very committed to an ongoing national dialogue on the place of Latino theater within mainstream American theater. Last November, the LATC hosted Encuentro 2014, a theater festival designed to reflect on the current state of Latino theater and its multifaceted themes, as well as on its diverse regional aesthetic expressions. Premeditation was the play the LTC chose to showcase at this historic event.
A constant of Evelina Fernández’s plays is the presence of strong female characters and very supportive female friendships. Just as her exposure to Teatro Campesino and Teatro de la Esperanza taught her the importance of the representations of Latinos in theater, Fernández soon became aware of the limited roles available to Latina actresses. The first play she wrote in Los Angeles was How Else Am I Supposed To Know I’m Still Alive? (1986). It explores the friendship between two women and the support they offer each other in times of personal crisis; it also foreshadows elements found in later plays, such as the power of humor to deal with painful truths. Another one of Fernández’s most recognizable and successful works, Luminarias (1997), portrays intimate conversations between four women at a restaurant. According to Fernández, the play presents “four archetypes of Latinas”: “The vendida— the one who turned her back on who she was in order to succeed. The Chicana who had the chip on her shoulder… The new age Chicana… And Irene, someone who had a problem with dealing with her brother’s homosexuality…” (Fernández, “In Her Own Words”). This celebration of female friendship and solidarity allowed for a more diverse and complex depiction of Chicana/Latina identities beyond the stereotypical roles as the victim, the gang member, the maid. It also demonstrated Fernández’s talent for candid social observation and humor, a trademark of her work.
As LTC’s playwright-in-residence, Fernández has authored several very successful plays. Solitude (2009), based on Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude, explores the topics of love, death, and evolving Mexican identities in an L.A. urban funeral setting during the L.A. immigration protests. The juxtaposition of outer dramatic expressionism and inner existential despair pays homage to Paz’s concept of masked identities, as it poses a serious reflection on Mexican, Mexican-American and Chicano identities in the L.A. scene. Another very successful play, Dementia, was initially commissioned in 1997 as part of the Mark Taper Forum Latino Theater Initiative; it was staged in 2002 and again in 2010. According to Fernández, although the characters are fictional, “the play is very loosely based on Jose Saucedo, theater director with El Teatro de la Esperanza and beyond” (Fernández, correspondence). It portrays the last days of an AIDS-stricken theater director as he plans his own farewell party. The surreal and melodramatic elements, as well as the endearing sense of humor, make the situation profoundly moving and human; at the same time it gives visibility to a nontraditional topic among Latino audiences.
Between 2011-2012, Fernández staged her Mexican Trilogy: Faith, Hope, and Charity. According to the author, the play has autobiographical content, as it traces the immigration saga of a Mexican family, similar to hers, across generations. Faith portrays Esperanza and Silverio Morales and their three daughters as they migrate to the U.S. after the Mexican Revolution, during the time when the U.S. entered the Second World War. Hope shows the life of Elena, the youngest daughter of the Morales family, struggling with an abusive husband in the midst of the Cold War and beginning of the Vietnam War. Charity brings to life the story of Gina (Elena’s daughter), who is mourning the loss of her son in the Iraq War. While this multigenerational family struggles with daily life and death issues, Esperanza —the centenarian matriarch, portrayed onstage by Mexican actress Ofelia Medina— interacts with the spirits of deceased loved ones; she ponders the passage of time, the historical changes faced by her lineage, and the inevitable loss of cultural heritage. Each play of the trilogy depicts humor, music, and references to key historical figures —Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Pope John Paul II—, a synthesis of challenges faced by each generation in the process of becoming full-fledged Americans with living Mexican roots. Each of the plays in the Trilogy offers ample opportunity to reflect on the evolving identity of this family whose dreams and ambitions conform to the American Dream.
Premeditation, just like its title suggests, revolves around a plot to commit a crime. It presents two couples embattled by the frustration of constant arguing. Throughout the play, the differences between both couples becomes obvious. Esmerelda and Fernando are a well-educated, upscale, middle-aged couple; she is a sophisticated lady with a penchant for thesaurus words, he is a UCLA literature professor. They have recently become empty-nesters. Of Mauricio and Lydia, we learn that he is a hit man, and she is a feisty, foul-mouthed housewife who doesn’t need a dictionary to call things the way she sees them. Later, we learn they have children and are struggling to make ends meet. Turmoil is evident for both couples as domestic recriminations between husbands and wives overlap in what seems like rapid crossfire. Ironically, regardless of their differences in social background, both couples experience the same kind of cliché martial problems stemming from lack of interest and communication. Thus, the prologue culminates in both husbands asking their wives, “What are you talking about?” —a phrase that will be repeated throughout the play. This beginning points to what seems like never-ending conjugal dissatisfaction. That is, until Esmerelda hires Mauricio as a final solution to her desperation. The rest of the play becomes an arena for the war of the sexes, and it leads to a reflection on marriage, love, and self-preservation. It also becomes a playground for comedic farce, humorous situations, and melodramatic moments that make us wonder whether Esmerelda’s actions will lead to an affair or to murder.
First presented in the spring of 2014, Premeditation was brought back to the L.A. stage in the fall for Encuentro 2014. A one-act version of Premeditation dates back to 1992, but it only features two characters: Esmerelda, the desperate wife, and Mauricio, the hit man. It is interesting to note that in the one-act version, Esmerelda comes to realize her husband and her marriage are worth saving, but in the 2014 version, she is not convinced her marriage can be fixed (Fernández, Premeditation). The addition of Lydia, who identifies with Esmerelda’s marital frustrations and offers her moral support might be crucial in the final outcome of the 2014 version. But the fact that Mauricio and Lydia are able to rekindle their love might also emphasize Lydia and Esmerelda’s different circumstances. Thanks to Esmerelda’s romance lessons, Mauricio understands that in order for a marriage to work, “You have to set the scene. It has to be planned, thought out, well-considered….” —in other words, “it has to be premeditated.” But Esmerelda’s marriage has become an empty lie, which is making her crazy, as when she comments: “I look at the mirror and I don’t recognize who I’ve become.” Feeling disconnected from her true self, Esmerelda realizes the real solution to her dissatisfaction does not lie in Fernando, but in herself.
The staging of Premeditation —as developed by the LTC, directed by José Luis Valenzuela— attests to the rich complementary relationship between Fernández’s writing and the ensemble work of the LTC. The play’s text offers limited stage directions. The reader is to assume that the play is set in the 21st century. At the LTC’s hands, Premeditation becomes a beautifully orchestrated theatrical experience set in the 1940’s in Los Angeles. The set design, lighting, and costumes create a dramatic —Chicano-Noir— atmosphere. The play’s text’s “Prologue”, for example, becomes a sensuously choreographed tango in which the actors enter the stage individually, each one dancing at their own rhythm with the stage furnishings: a chair, a mirror, a clothing rack. The characters designed for the LTC actors become fully alive —Fernández playing the role of Esmerelda, Sal López as Mauricio, Lucy Rodríguez as Lydia, and Geoffrey Rivas as Fernando. The seductive tango music comes together to create a poetic ambiance suited for the fine-tuned tempo and sensuously melodramatic acting of the ensemble. In subsequent scene changes, the actors will double their roles as hotel assistants, as well as stage crew. Throughout the play, the gigantic black and white projections —of lit cigarettes, puffing mouths, lips, smoke, eyelashes, transfixed stares, etc.— elegantly emphasize the noir style, enhancing the moods brewing in the characters’ consciousness. This would be a play realistically set in the 1940’s, but the plot relies strategically on the use of cell phones, specifically the iPhone, with its GPS capability and Apple ID features. This intersection of space and time continuums adds deep-layered meanings to the conflicts represented and showcases the LTC’s talent for humor and creative collaborative work.
Contrary to Fernández’s previous plays, Premeditation is set in a world devoid of intentional Latino/Chicano centered situations. There are no overt references to immigration, wars, or the historical present. The plot doesn’t revolve around family histories or generation gaps, and there is no turmoil associated with overtly social or political issues. Also, the dialogue does not include as much Spanish-peppered language as previous plays, only a few words at the most. The characters have Spanish names, but in the staged version they are pronounced mostly with English intonation. In that context, Fernando’s effort to correct the hotel attendant’s pronunciation from Riviera to Rivera becomes a funny contradiction. These are definitely not conventional Latino characters either. Esmerelda prefers scotch rather than the ron included in her hotel room’s full bar; Mauricio prefers bourbon and he is a Trojans fan; Fernando drives a Volvo and eats Soy-rizo from Trader Joe’s; Lydia’s love letter is verbatim lyrics to a Marvin Gaye song. These characters are very much at ease in their American context, which seems like an intentional break away from the stereotypes. Nonetheless, there is an effort to disambiguate the characters’ heritage. In a reference to the times when Esmerelda and Fernando were known as Esme and Fernie, Esmerelda clarifies, this was before “…we discovered our roots and reclaimed our birth names.” There is also a very funny moment when Fernando, as he is defending his effort to be a good husbands, says, “…I love the opera an classical music, fine art; I appreciate and cherish the wonderful things about being Chicano, and I love our culture”, as if to remind us, with a wink, that these are still Chicano characters.
Premeditation exemplifies Fernández’s ability to create inventive dramatic situations with character development well-grounded on a solid command of dialogue and a flair for humorous situations and playful language. The staged version of the play also attests to the Latino Theater Company’s tradition of collaborative work, which is evident in the artistry in developing the noir atmosphere and the ensemble’s solid command of acting, tempo, and flawless delivery of lines. In terms of the theme, the author stays true to her commitment to create new and interesting roles for Latina/os. Just like Esmerelda, who liberates herself from self-constraints in an experimental move, Evelina Fernández’s exploration of new thematic territories keeps her work premeditatedly relevant.
Coates, José Benjamín. “El teatro representado en español en Los Ángeles: lazos culturales y desafíos comunes.” Gestos 56 (November 2013): 148-157.
Fernández, Evelina. How Else Am I Supposed to Know I’m Still Alive? Contemporary Plays by Women of Color. Kathy A. Perkins and Roberto Uno, Eds. New York: Rutledge 1996. 160-167.
—Correspondence via personal email. January 2, 2015.
—“Evelina Fernández—In Her Own Words.” latinopia.com. July 15, 2010. Web. Jan 2, 2015. http://latinopia.com/latino-theater/evelina-Fernández-in-her-own-words/
— Premeditation. (One-act play). Latino Literature: Poetry, Drama & Fiction. Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street Press, 2006.
Geirola, Gustavo. “Visualidad/visibilidad: la teatralidad del teatro y el fetichismo. Luminarias de Evelina Fernández.” Gestos 25 (1998): 51-73.
Huerta, Jorge and Carlos Morton, “A Conversational Review of Solitude by Evelina Fernández.” Gestos 50 (November 2010): 201-204.
Kearns, Carol. “The Latino Theater Company’s Premeditation.” HowlRound. Nov. 13, 2014. Web. Jan 5, 2015. http://howlround.com/the-latino-theater-companys- premeditation
LATC [Los Angeles Theatre Center]—Premeditation. n.d. Web. Jan 15, 2015. http:// thelatc.org/upcoming-shows/premeditation/
Latino Theater Company Digital Archive. N.d. Web. Feb. 7, 2015. http://thelatinotheatercompany.net
Rampell, Ed. “Evelina Fernández and Her Contributions to Charity.” L.A. Stage Times. May 8, 2012. Web. May 28, 2013. http://www.lastagetimes.com/2012/05/evelina- Fernández-and-her-contributions-to-charity/
 Fernández is a self-proclaimed Chicana, in its full political sense. But most of the characters in her plays are either Mexican-born, Mexican-American, or Chicana/o, depending on the historical context and characterization within a drama. At times, Fernández has referred to her characters as Latina/os, just as the Latino Theater Company has also adopted “Latino” as a more inclusive term. In this introduction, these various terms will be used, as needed, to refer to Fernández’s work, characters, and legacy.
 The group originally formed at the LATC as the Latino Theater Lab.
 For more information on La Virgen de Guadalupe, Dios Inantzin, see Coates.
 For production information, photos, and other resources on Fernandez’s plays, visit the Latino Theater Company Digital Archive.
 Before it was transformed into a play, the film script was originally submitted to Sony Pictures in 1994 and it became a film directed by José Luis Valenzuela in 2000. For an in-depth analysis of the play, see Geirola.
 For more information on Solitude, see Jorge Huerta and Carlos Morton.
 When first staged in 2002, the play obtained a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Theater Production in Los Angeles and garnered four Ovation Award nominations.
 For information on this event, see Jorge Huerta’s review in this issue of Gestos.
 The one-act version of the play (Fernandez, Premeditation), was staged at La Plaza de la Raza, Los Angeles, 1995. It was adapted to the screen by Alberto Barboza. It received a Best Short Film Award at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival (2004) and it was aired on Showtime (2005).