There is a sequence in "Learn to Be Latina" where officials at a record company are discussing a hot new talent. They praise her singing. They compliment her beauty. Then one laments her Lebanese background, saying what a bleeping waste of talent.
The scene gets to the heart of the comedy, which has a lot of strong language and opens tonight at Mixed Blood Theatre.
After a rehearsal last week, director Mark Valdez invoked the names of such superstars as J. Lo, Shakira and Salma Hayek and marveled at their success. He also wanted to explain the title and import of Enrique Urueta's play, which is making its regional premiere.
"Twenty years ago, you might not have had someone wanting to pass as a Latina," he said. "Today, some of the biggest stars are Latino. The most watched TV network is Univision, which is making stars like Sofia Vergara. Of course, people who don't speak Spanish don't know this, and that means it doesn't exist to them. But people still have a feeling about all the change that's afoot and want to ride the demographic wave."
"Latina" is about the intersection of two women's journeys. One is a Latina character who, many years ago, passed for Irish because that's what she thought she needed to do to succeed. Now she is helping up-and-coming young Lebanese singer Hanan, whose record label thinks that she is unmarketable. Hanan is offered a Faustian bargain: surrender her identity for Latin pop stardom.
The setup takes aim at some real issues and large targets, said Valdez, a California-based director who staged a bilingual "Pajama Game" in 2007 at Mixed Blood.
"We think of Shakira as Colombian and Salma Hayek as Mexican, but they're both Lebanese," he said. "They're bicultural, but they play the game that this play critiques."
Valdez was quick to add that cultural reduction and appropriation are part and parcel of America's history of fluid identities.
"People at Ellis Island changed their names all the time," he said. "In Hollywood, so-called ethnic names were and still are changed."
"Latina" concludes a Mixed Blood season that started with the controversial and explosive "Neighbors," which had provocative figures in blackface and featured a character chewing off his own member.
This production will also be edgy, although in different ways, said Mixed Blood founder Jack Reuler, as it savagely interrogates imposed and assumed identities.
"It's the right bookend for a season that tackles race," said Reuler. "The play is an onion that feels like it's about entertainment, exploitation and cultural appropriation. After the playwright gets people to open their mouths in laughter, he shoves the truth down their throats."
Jamie Elvey, who is Lebanese-American and a 2008 masters degree graduate of the University of California-Irvine, plays Hanan. The cast includes Bonni Allen and Brian Skellenger, both alumni of the theater's "Avenue Q," as well as George Keller, Hope Cervantes and Aditi Kapil, who plays the ethnic consultant.
"Latina" confronts the struggle "to embrace all of who we are," Reuler said. "Six of the seven actors in the play are of mixed race. Where are the parts of them in our entertainment industry? Why do they have to check boxes and limit themselves?"
Director Valdez echoed Reuler.
"This is a madcap comedy where the jokes are fast and furious," he said. "But underneath it all, there's this plea for space where we can be our whole selves, gay and religious, brown, black and white, all at once."
The play also looks at the price of passing.
"If you're just trying to be something other than your authentic self, you'll either cross the line where this new identity takes over or you kind of splinter," said Valdez. "It happens in this play at the high level of a record contract. But it happens in families, too, and in our workplaces and schools. People are constantly trying on new identities, new ways of negotiating and presenting ourselves to the world."