By Martha Wade Steketee
Class, culture, language, appropriation, and integrity underscore the quiet power of Tanya Saracho’s Fade produced by Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theater. A story about storytelling, a play about the creative process, a demonstration of culture meeting commerce and two characters from very different worlds who meet at work. The cost of creation unfolds quietly and devastatingly before our eyes.
Saracho is an actress and playwright who has broken into the world of writing for and developing television shows. Lucky for theatergoers, she continues to create works for stage. New York audiences could have seen her Enfrascada in 2011 at HERE in Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks festival and Mala Hierba in 2014 at Second Stage Uptown. I have seen a broader swath of her work from my time in Chicago that overlapped with her residence there, including Our Lady of the Underpass (reflections on the lives of people who have been attracted to a water stain in the shape, they believe, of the Virgin Mary), El Nogalar (an adaptation of The Cherry Orchard), and a piece called Machos based on interviews with men, portrayed by an all-female Latina acting ensemble at Chicago Dramatists.
These past plays are inspired by human-scale stories animated by beliefs in the supernatural and spirits. Fade, on the other hand, draws its inspiration from Saracho’s transition from creation within theater families into the world of television, far removed from ghost lights and rehearsal rooms. Fade presents creativity as white collar work in an anonymous, barren, mostly over-lit office, on a hallway that is punctuated with the simple soundscape of occasional phone calls and a passing vacuum cleaner.
In this one set office designed by Mariana Sanchez and lit by Amith Shandrashaker, mismatched couch and chairs, cheap collapsing shelves, and inexpensive blinds provide a shadowbox framework. No music, no nature, no colleagues, just Lucia (Annie Dow) who has joined the staff of an ongoing television show that features a generic Latina, and Abel (Eddie Martinez), the long-time vacuum-wielding janitorial employee who works Lucia’s area of the office compound.
What Lucia and Abel share is their Mexican heritage they incorporate differently into their everyday lives, two people with vastly different class backgrounds (Lucia comes from privilege and Abel is working class) who occupy dramatically different perches in the hierarchy of a film studio.
Lucia is lonely as the new kid at the job, assumes when she encounters Abel working near her office that he is Latino (he is), that he speaks Spanish (which he prefers not to do at first), and connects to him. Lucia initially reaches out to what she thinks is safe and familiar. The Spanish she speaks to him in initial interactions is not at first verbally responded at all, and when he finally replies, he uses English to her surprise. Director Jerry Ruiz’s choreography of these initial interactions and the subtle performance of presumption and quiet decision to put up these “microagressions” are stunning. In television-sized potent short scenes, they befriend, aggravate, make up, then betray one another.
Saracho is a master at blending English and Spanish dialogue, without translations or supertitles, writing clearly yet occasionally requiring audience members who don’t understand the language being spoken to attend other details. As in life, to understand the big themes, you don’t have to understand every single word.
The play’s title could refer to skin hue (we hear the television show’s character talk about being “brown and from the barrio” and Lucia considers her role as the diversity hire in a room of white male writers) and it could refer to how to act – stand strong in one’s heritage or “fade” into the background. The power of this story grows as it is absorbed.
Fade. Through March 5, 2017 at the Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street). Running time 100 minutes with no intermission. http://primarystages.org/shows/current-season/fade/
Photos: James Leynse.