You have to hand it to Stray Cat Theatre’s founding artistic director, Ron May. When actor/director Ben F. Locke of Broken Nose Theatre in Chicago posted a social-media challenge to theatre groups across the country, May took notice. Locke’s unique call was for a theatre’s largely white leadership team to take a backseat for one full season. This meant, other than support, no active involvement in the production, but instead, give the opportunity and support to the underutilized black, indigenous, and people of color to produce previously unseen, new plays that reflect both their lives and their cultures. May took a deep breath, then took a backseat.
The first play of Stray Cat’s 2022-23 season personifies the very elements that May – and Locke, for that matter – were aiming for. ‘Ghosts of Bogotá’ by Colombian playwright Diana Burbano, is a black, comic, supernatural affair set in Colombia. As requested in the script’s casting instructions, all actors should be Latinx, while the actor cast as a talking bust of Jesus should be either Black or Afro-Latinx. The play’s director, Alejandra Luna, is an actor/director, and an ensemble member for Teatro Bravo, Arizona’s first Latinx theatre company in Phoenix. Clearly, Stray Cat Theatre has adhered to these instructions exactly as challenged.
Incorporating themes of religious concerns, violence, immigration, family secrets, plus the lasting repercussions of sexual abuse, the play tells of three squabbling Americanized siblings – two sisters, one younger brother – who, when their abusive grandfather dies, are forced to temporarily leave the comfort of their American homes in order to bury a man they hate. Out of those three siblings, Bruno (Anthony Martinez) is the only one born in America after his mother moved countries. Despite the character’s heritage, he is the only family member who can’t speak Spanish.
As narrative conflicts unfold, you can’t help but feel that maybe award-winning Burbano was exorcising a few ghosts of her own when she wrote the script. Only someone with a firsthand knowledge of what it is like for an immigrant to settle in America and feel culturally caught between the attitudes and traditions of a home country and a newly adopted one could write with such authentic accuracy. The fact that, after doing a search on Burbano’s background, discovering that ‘Ghosts of Bogotá’ is, in fact, heavily biographical only adds further to the fascination of the play’s subject.
But that doesn’t mean Stray Cat’s production is not without issues. As theatre-goers are aware, what makes live theatre unique is its ability to change from performance to performance. A Saturday night run in front of a packed house can come across quite differently on a Sunday afternoonmatinee, particularly when the play is a comedy as dark as this where the laughs are neither broad nor obvious. Regarding the performance that this audience member saw, while Tiana Torrilhon-Wood’s scenic design of the family living room is just right and nicely detailed, lighting cues seemed off; characters remained occasionally in the dark while clearly meant to fully lit and in the forefront of action.
The audio of expletive-laden rap used as sound filler when one scene fades and transitions into another is jarring to say the least and adds nothing to the overall flavor of the piece. Plus, there were several times when the cast itself seemed to hesitate before speaking in the way an actor might experience that sudden panic attack of wondering if they’ve missed a cue.
However, Shelly R. Trujillo as oldest sister Lola can’t help but dominate the stage the moment she enters. She's who you'll remember the most, while Angel Sicairos as younger sister Sandy develops into a stronger, more interesting performer and character as the play develops. When her character discovers she can cause physical pain to the ghost of her abusive grandfather, Saúl (George Gonzalez) with a forceful finger prod, the moment is priceless. Plus, the fade out image of a man alone, holding his own ashes contained in a cookie tin is as effectively haunting as any ghostly image Tempe audiences will ever witness in any ghostly play.
‘Ghosts of Bogotá’ will continue at Tempe Center for the Arts in Tempe until October 15.
(Footnote: As you may have noticed, this is not an official review, simply a lengthy post on Facebook. However, for Stray Cat Theatre’s next production in December, La Ruta, Broadway World has invited me to be an official guest contributor and to cover the play’s opening. Can’t wait.)