Victor I. Cazares, NYTW Tow Playwright-in-Residence, sets their latest work in a 90s Walmart. american (tele)visions follows an undocumented Mexican family through a genre mash-up complete with live camera feeds, video game graphics, and telenovela references. Through pre-teen Erica’s quest as a "Hero of Ages Lost," each of the family member’s revelations, desires, and failures are brought to light in the kinetic memory play.
Rubén Polendo directs the world premiere, which began previews at New York Theatre Workshop September 10, opened September 29 and will play a limited engagement through October 16. The cast features Elia Monte-Brown, Clew, Raúl Castillo, Ryan J. Haddad, and Bianca “b” Norwood.
Monte-Brown plays the family’s matriarch Maria Ximena, a frustrated and grieving mother who “is deeply desirous of having things be okay.” Here she takes readers inside the play, and her transformation into Maria Ximena: how cues help her navigate the role's emotional shifts, preparing for the emotional whiplash with heart-openers, and the repetition that helped it all become instinct.
What does it mean to you to bring this specific story to life on the stage during Hispanic Heritage Month?
Elia Monte-Brown: I think though there is a deep universality in this story, it is extremely specific. Our playwright, our director, and Raúl are all from border towns along the Texas-Mexico border. That specific part of the world is very represented on the pages of this script. There’s been this joy because many of their friends and network are also from the world of this play, and so there are evenings where the audience is full of those who have such a deep familiarity with references made. There are parts of the play that can feel deeply metaphorical and confusing, but the reality is it's actually just a simple explanation of a place. For example, the meteor shower. That can feel like this deep metaphor that runs through the play, but also it's something that, if you're from this part of the world, is familiar. I think, specifically, if you are from the place where this play is born from, there are a lot of tangible handholds.
Describe your character Maria Ximena.
Monte-Brown: In the script, Maria Ximena is described as the mother. And I think, in many ways, that's been the focal point for me. She grapples with many of the challenges of motherhood. She is the wife to Octavio who is struggling with his own depression. She is a grieving mother. She's lost a son. She is somebody that is struggling...is deeply desirous of having things be okay—whatever that means—over the course of the play.
How do you prepare yourself for portraying Maria Ximena, particularly her grief?
Monte-Brown: I am a mother of a toddler. I don't like in my work to project personal experience, specifically in with grief; I don't close my eyes and imagine terrible things happening to people I love in order to drop in. But, I drop very quickly into the maternal aspects of Maria Ximena when imagining the small hands of my daughter touching me. I think, as many mothers can attest, there's a lot of touch. So, I actually don't go into the loss, but rather to the love. And then on top of that, I think it's a show that's really important to be warmed up for. I do a lot of heart-openers, and make sure that everything in my body is flowing and open and ready for impulse.
This show has a number of abrupt emotional changes as scenes shift. How do you change that energy on the drop of a hat from scene to scene?
Monte-Brown: Ultimately, you have to find a way to have it all readily available so that in a light change or a sound cue, you can drop into a different place of emotionality and a different time with a different context. That definitely required a rehearsal process. It required each moment being so specific, and then rehearsed in that order so that your body was primed for it. We think of it as a five-act play, but in acts two and three, there are many sequences in a row back-to-back that Maria Ximena goes through. It felt totally undoable, like whiplash—deeply confusing, I was physically out of breath, my head would be spinning. It really required repetition. And then you get really excited about going to these next places, because they are thoughtfully ordered and constructed. So, each becomes a release into the next. I would absolutely click into every little thing I could to help make those transitions, whether it be a sound cue, lighting, blocking.
At one point, you take on the role of being a camera operator, and an interviewer. Can you share some insights into that moment?
Monte-Brown: I love that moment so much. There's something that is revealed on camera that sometimes you can ignore in real life. In the watching back, for example, of an old film or even looking at a photograph...there's moments of revelation in those, and that moment for Maria Ximena feels really penetrating. It does feel like in that moment Maria Ximena is demanding a revelation of self, a confirmation of suspicion. And Maria Ximena, although at points she loses herself, remains aware of the audience as an essential part of this play. She knows she is being watched by people now whose opinions can be changed and swayed, and I think that moment from Maria Ximena is asking the audience to see what she sees. ‘You see it too, right?’
If you had a memory play, what store would yours be set in?
Monte-Brown: I'm from New York City. We don't have big experiential stores. I go to Costco occasionally when we visit my aunt in Los Angeles, but that always felt very aspirational. I always looked at it like, ‘Wow, how American. The American Dream. I'm going to get 100 pencils.’ But, it never felt representative of who I am, perhaps similarly in the way that Walmart doesn't feel representative of who Victor is, but rather aspirational as well.
What do you hope audiences take away from this show?
Monte-Brown: I hope people feel seen by this production, that people feel like their narratives are being honored and witnessed and cared for. I think with any great play, there is a revelation and a reminder of the rigor and also the frailty of the human experience—and that in that existence, we are seeking love at all costs. Often, it's not rational or linear. I think Victor does something really incredible by taking us out of a linear timeline, and also a single genre, that really allows the ways in which we need to tell our stories to be amplified.