Feature | Sombreros and Other Stereotypes: rehearsing Playing Latinx

by Diana Miranda

Playing Latinx is a co-production by Guido García Lueches and MarianaMalena Theatre Co. The script is inspired by Guido’s real-life experiences auditioning within the UK theatre and film industries, navigating the exploitation of Latin stereotypes, and the thin line between going harmlessly along and complying with problematic myths. The Latin American theatremakers have devised a one-person show in which they’re doing and saying all the wrong things, Guido tells me, but making sure that people know it’s all wrong.

It’s funny to watch a show’s rehearsal when it’s so reliant on audience participation. Even while the interventions seem mild, audiences are a major factor in a show that tackles the consumption of stereotypical traits. So, the rehearsal seems like one half of a whole. I am the only (sort of) audience member during one of the morning rehearsals before Playing Latinx‘s run at Camden People’s Theatre. The only outsider with no previous connection to the show, that is. But I could feel it already. The ethos of the show is already in the rehearsal space. The glimpse of costumes, the keywords in the show’s chart and, above all, the light-hearted, at times sarcastic tone as the team examines the songs, props, and other production elements that reference a Latin American generic self, as put by Mariana.

And so, the stream of consciousness started.
I’m Mexican, moved to London in 2019. I’m beholding a kaleidoscope of Latin imagery.
A thought about stereotypes.
Quick browser search.
A commonly held, but simplistic idea of a particular type of person or thing.

Yes, stereotypes are oversimplified ideas that outline cultures and identities, sometimes with a hint of mockery or even disdain. They are often commercialised to the point that they grow as inaccurate representations of the thing itself, tailored to become a product for mass consumption. By transforming cultural manifestations into stereotypes, they lose their organic evolution and don’t have a link with communities anymore. Or do they? I enjoy seeing those very stereotypes reflected back to me during Playing Latinx‘s work session. The thing with stereotypes is that they do have a little truth in them, but they wash out the nuances and either remove or distort the context. Perhaps I find joy because those familiar signs are the only thing I have to hand after a period of COVID travel restrictions that kept me away from home. Or perhaps, more significantly, because they were covered with comical sarcasm, which kind of make it OK. The beauty of dark humour. It feels like overhearing a chat among friends that don’t take themselves too seriously. And that’s the thing. The team behind Playing Latinx reclaims stereotypical labels and seek to lay them out on UK stages using laughter as an infiltration strategy. They’re aware of the seriousness of the subject matter but tackle it with humour, which is reflected during the show’s making process.

Playing Latinx has been performed before. It first came to life as a short video for The Actors Centre’s on-demand theatre season in 2020, when the lockdown era offered digital media as an only option. Then in October 2021, it made its way to live audiences at Camden People’s Theatre. So that morning session seemed like a gathering of recollections. A relaxed run-through to extend the thread and put the beads in place again, suggesting slight changes here and there according to what didn’t quite work before or what seems like an exciting idea now. No decisions are made at this point. While Guido performed a quick run-through and took reminder notes, Sergio Maggiolo was responsible for operating the sound cues. Mariana helped with costume changes and kept the directing hat on (an exhibit of the usual multitasking in fringe theatre). And Malena kept track of the show as a whole, drawing attention to specific details. Some suggestions are pencilled down to discuss afterwards, while other thoughts are spoken aloud but dropped quickly, lingering in the eyes a bit but kept as an idea that is still simmering.

One of those simmering ideas was Guido’s aim to create an empathetic, inclusive environment through small but meaningful gestures, like wording things correctly to invite the participation of audiences with physical disabilities and suggesting an addition to the script that references current socio-political issues. He’s also aware that cues for audience participation may seem a bit mischievous (as it happens with comedy), but he trusts that they’ve created a safe space that people will enjoy. There’s a subtle note of empathy in these actions, all the more powerful because it doesn’t seem quite deliberate. Or conscious, rather. Especially as these remarks are interweaved with others of dry wit and harsh facts.

There’s a lot of spontaneity in the room. A chart on a chalkboard breaks down the scenes into costumes, props and poems. But that chart works mainly to frame a state of mind and invite focus rather than provide a manual.

In addition to laughter, I picked out another infiltration strategy during the rehearsal. Perhaps less deliberate, spoken with a matter-of-fact tone, but just as effective. Labelling words. Simple, straightforward. The kind that functions as cues in the collective imagination. Exhibit A: the first column in the show’s chart.

S1: Sexy Mexican | Pool | Thong
Enough said.
Also, words that the company casually mentions during the run-through: Salsatango dancer. Burrito. Tequila. Sombrero. Juan Manuel Ricardo (those acquainted with telenovelas will get that last one).
Stereotypical terms are planted like flags in the script, costumes and charts, ready to force them into recognition. And yes, I laughed about it. Not at the stereotypes themselves, but at how deliberately ridiculous it is. The oversimplified labels woven to conceive a generic Latin American self that the entertainment industry enjoys and exploits. It feels like an invitation to welcome the politically incorrect to have a good laugh.

And so, I received those labelling words as paintballs that left marks as I sat there. Not quite receiving the whole thing yet, the whole show, but gathering the ethos behind it. The show still has the lovely vibe of an early rehearsal, making me think of how fluid and malleable theatre is. There’s a playful atmosphere. There’s room to joke about a scene that needs work, to laugh – really laugh – about mishaps, and to think aloud new ideas (as it happens in rehearsal studios).

The use of space isn’t rigid during this session. There are no measurement marks on the floor, no fixed decisions about stage-left or stage-right exits, or the collection of props that remain onstage. Overall, there is a feeling of free movement. The company warms up with freestyle dancing.

The show’s advertising states that Playing Latinx is a show by Guido García Lueches, directed by Mariana Aristizábal and Malena Arcucci. And yes, some moments remind me of this, like when Mariana asks Guido to reflect on the context of a healthcare support scene that was fading due to its underlying comedy. However, overall it very much feels like a collaborative process. This production launches from a horizontal platform. It might be a cliché to say that counterbalancing features is the most productive thing in teamwork, but Playing Latinx proves the cliché right. Each person brings something different to the room, balancing the devising process. They combine a sense of humour and easy-going curiosity with attention to structure and detailed, forward-thinking.

It is a brief glimpse of a rehearsal but enough to put the thinking hat in position, though. It’ll be interesting to see the other half of the whole and how audience members respond to it, Latin Americans or not. I wonder if some super nuanced references, if any, might diminish the impact for some people. The stream of consciousness shall continue.

Playing Latinx runs through 2 April, then tours.

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