Review: Matrilineal Memories Inform a Coming of Age in "Mi Abuela, Queen of Nightmares"

Mi Abuela, Queen of Nightmares

Written and directed by Christine Stoddard

Presented by Quail Bell Productions at the Gene Frankel Theatre

24 Bond St., Manhattan, NYC

June 15-26, 2022

Photo from MI ABUELA, QUEEN OF NIGHTMARES: A STAGE PLAY BY CHRISTINE STODDARD - Home (weebly.com)
Family and culture, each in its own way, serve as sources of mythology, and Christine Stoddard's Mi Abuela, Queen of Nightmares brings together both varieties in a matriarchal meditation on intergenerational inheritances. Based on a 2018 chapbook of poems and winner of a national playwriting competition held by Table Work Press, which published the play in 2020, Mi Abuela infuses folkloric elements into a young Salvadoran-American woman's reckoning with her past, a rendering of personal history in which her mother and grandmother loom large. The result is a magical-realist memory play that kindles a unique atmosphere while addressing traumas that are, for women (of color) particularly, all too common.

Protagonist Maya (Vanessa Vivas) never knew her Abuela (Fiamma Piacentini) while she was alive, but she persists in Maya's life through Maya's mother's stories (Marian Del Valle)–or fairy tales, in Maya's parlance–and artifacts such as the dressing table that Mami uses and the rosary that Maya keeps under her pillow, not to mention trips to tend to Abuela's grave. Maya never knew her White father (Jacob Maximillian Baron) either, for reasons that are made sharply clear, leaving her to compete for Mami's love and attention with Mami's own dead mother, no doubt contributing to the rebellious phase that opens into the climax of the play (which includes a significant doubling by Baron). A scene in which Maya and her mother cook and dance together provides a warm oasis amidst the resentment that often tinges Maya's recollections of their relationship (and dance makes an important reappearance at a critical stage in the play). At the same time, the play asks how Maya's understanding of her mother's and grandmother's own pain might illuminate and contextualize her own.
Maya (Vanessa Vivas) and Mami (Marian Del Valle). Photo from Patch.com
Woven throughout all of this are the more fantastical elements. Jaguars (embodied with playful sinuosity by Amanda Andrews and Jess Appel) must be shooed from Maya's bed or frolic with yarn on the family's kitchen floor. Owls and cacti (Andrews and Appel again) don't stay put outside Maya's bedroom window–there's even a hug with one of the anthropomorphic spiny plants–and a pair of ancestors (Ariana Jackman and writer/director Stoddard) circulate through and between these memories, bringing and removing objects and offerings, a process not unlike the accretions of history and memory. Stoddard's ancestor provides some impish comic relief in juxtaposition with Jackman's more reverent example, and together they connect Maya to an even longer history.
Abuela (Fiamma Piacentini) and Mami (Marian Del Valle). Photo from About - MI ABUELA, QUEEN OF NIGHTMARES: A STAGE PLAY BY CHRISTINE STODDARD (weebly.com)
Abuela makes numerous (often significantly silent) appearances as well; and not infrequently, action is taking place simultaneously in multiple areas of the stage. However, despite this simultaneity in staging and the various animals and mental revenants, Mi Abuela overwhelmingly unfolds at a quiet, unhurried pace, steeping the audience in the world that it conjures. Del Valle imbues Mami with a tentativeness, even a little strangeness, that denotes her emotional damage and belies her outbursts of maternal self-assertion, while Vivas gives Maya an occasional edge of derisiveness that reads as self-protective and contrasts impactfully with the moments when Maya's usually contained anger spills over. The jaguar is something of a slippery signifier in the play, used twice early as a point of comparison to women of color but also invoked late as a self-identification by a White male. What is much more certain is that Mi Abuela, Queen of Nightmares will sink its own claws into you.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

Comments

  1. Las historias de la abuela. Siempre presentes. Thank you for posting this!

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