Every once in a while, a play comes along with the power to render its audience speechless – to wrench us from our academic stupor, remind us of the importance of good art, and make us feel a little more awake because of it. “The Mathematics of Love,” written by TAPS artist-in-residence Cherríe Moraga, is such a work. Drawing from Mexico’s rich history of colonialism, diaspora, resilience and the endless legacies left behind by strong women, the show is as much a monument to these themes as it is to the people who embody them.
Staged in the Nitery Theater, the show is the culmination of Moraga’s longtime collaboration with Ricardo Bracho, L.A.-based writer and radical intellectual, after they were commissioned to write two short plays on the subject of “Amor Eterno.” It was under such circumstances that two radically different works were brought together: the story of MalinXe, the Aztec princess forced to serve under Hernán Cortés as interpreter, advisor and mistress (reimagined by Bracho to be a spunky, sunglass-brandishing diva who borders on the blasphemous) and that of Peaches, an elderly Mexican woman grappling with Alzheimer’s.
A breathtaking set, designed by TAPS faculty member Erik Flatmo, transforms the space into the lobby of the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel at the turn of the 21st century. With embellishments of intricate tile flooring, beautiful furniture, a built-in bar and flowing pink curtains concealing a grand master bedroom at the far end of the room, the stage is set for magical realism – and the plot delivers.
We begin as if watching a drawing room play: Peaches, on the day before her anniversary party, sits in the hotel lobby with her Anglo husband, Poppa, and anxiously awaits the arrival of her son (whom they curiously refer to as “God”). Peaches reminisces about her days working at the Agua Caliente, a club in Tijuana where all the movie stars mingled, when all of a sudden, we are transported back to the 16th century. MalinXe enters, followed by a small stack of suitcases, and Peaches has become her slave girl. MalinXe, played by the captivating Erika Yanin Pérez-Hernández, is a character as complex as her history – traveling through time and space to relieve herself of the shackles of her own narrative.
In various iterations of the past – or perhaps a different life altogether – she and Peaches embody many different versions of a complicated mother-daughter relationship, digging at themes which are at once deeply personal and universal within communities living in diaspora. Third-wave feminism, Latinidad, poetry, indigeneity, grief – all are essential components of Moraga’s work, and all are done justice in this workshop production. She explores the dimensions of collective memory as she transforms Peaches’ slaveholder (“Queen of Slaves,” as she calls herself) into Peaches’ daughter, given to Cortés by her mother in order to appease his colonial wrath.
The story is further complicated by Peaches’ own relationship with her present-day daughter, a queer woman struggling to maintain connection in the face of her mother’s dementia, and Peaches’ own traumatic history living and working for a Cortés of her own. As one might guess, this is no easy production to mount – but across the board, Misha Chowdhury’s directorial work is nothing short of stunning. Each moment is meticulously crafted – from the roaring sound of the sea during Peaches’ monologues and flashbacks (crafted by Jonathan Leal) to the powerful conceptual design of Celia Rodriguez, as we are presented with image after image from the depth of Peaches’ mind: two native women scrubbing a toilet, flower petals drifting down from the ceiling, the entire lobby being transformed into a lively iteration of the hotel’s heyday. These moments read almost like moments of prayer; the little black box theater becomes a site of mourning, remembrance and holiness – and its audience as congregants preparing to witness the recreation of miracles.
Of course, there is tremendous difficulty in juxtaposing a history so devastating with the microscopic moments of day-to-day life – yet in Moraga’s work, the two are inseparable. 500 years of colonization, genocide and slavery culminate in simple, heartbreaking moments: a Chicana woman chastising her Anglo husband for not being able to fold a towel properly, a daughter being told she’d be better off born a man and a family waiting in vain for a son (or perhaps some sort of divine presence) to show up and save them.
But as historical as this play is, it is also, in many ways, a searing critique of history – particularly, of history as it is preserved between the pages of Western books. Within the Eurocentric academy (Stanford, of course, being its epitome), history is so often portrayed as linear, expressed in terms of beginning, middle and teleological end. The very structure of “The Mathematics of Love” rejects this narrative for one that is malleable, circular and postcolonial in nature – an exploration of not only the “what if”s of history, but also the many ways in which burdens are shared across generations.
The cast for this production is phenomenal, with a vulnerable and oft-oblivious George Killingsworth as Poppa, TAPS Ph.D student Karina Gutierrez as the daughter and an incredibly versatile hotel staff played by TAPS Ph.D Thao Nguyen and the gripping Hugo E. Carbajal. But most stunning by far is Rose Portillo in the role of Peaches – one of the best performances to grace the Nitery in years. Swiftly moving from timid young slave girl, to worker at the Agua Caliente, to disoriented woman turning her purse inside out to find something she’s lost, she never fails to move with the power of her presence, authenticity and raw emotion.
Though the show is sure to disorient most with its confusing plot line, this is of little concern to Moraga. “You should have to come back and see a play five times to figure out what it’s all about,” she tells the audience during a post-show discussion. In many ways, the experience of the play is not one altogether different from doing mathematics. We are constantly trying to find the sum of different stories and different truths – all while confronted with the precious moments of clarity that come with mental illness. “At the end of your life, you make a long list in your heart to see if all the numbers add up,” Peaches tells us. Ultimately, “The Mathematics of Love” is an exploration of intimacy in its many forms – the ways in which we are connected through dramatic pasts, and yet still lead lives in which we must struggle to connect. To describe such a story as anything less than magical would be an understatement.
Contact Madelaine Bixler at [email protected].