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A terrible beauty is born

Valdez's "Mummified Deer" is a powerful and profound new work

by Victor Payan

The stage is stark. It is barren. Truncated branches that could be limbs, that could be antlers jut out from dry sloping walls that are adorned with cave paintings. There is the sense of raw nerves exposed. Behind a hospital bed on which an old woman lies is another network of nerves, translucent and winding toward the sky. They beat. Blood red. Like a drum. We are in a womb. And a silent deer dancer struts and prances, leaps and lunges, bouncing off the walls. He is waiting to be born.

Welcome to the world of "The Mummified Deer," Chicano playwright Luis Valdez's long anticipated new play currently in production at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. At a time when his other works are enjoying a healthy revival, this new play, which was written during Valdez's two-year residency at the Rep, finds the father of Chicano theater at the height of his dramatic abilities.

The play, which centers around 84-year-old Mama Chu and her loveable but dysfunctional family, is a powerful and profound work, which seamlessly integrates Valdez's encyclopedic views on culture, history and popular theater. From the inventive minimalism of his teatro tradition to the bawdy rasquachismo of the carpa and the austere mysticism of Yaqui ceremony, Valdez presents us with an eloquently expressed drama in which the past, the present and the world beyond flow through each other effortlessly.

There is also the feel of a classic Greek tragedy in this play in which fierce warriors return from the dead to lament the loss of a four hundred year war, and in which a once proud people are blown across an unforgiving desert, fated to be servants, slaves and refugees. But to refer back to the European tradition is to detract from the idea that Valdez is constantly striving to create an artform born of this continent and from the New World experience. With "The Mummified Deer" he succeeds. To a great degree, this is accomplished as it was in his groundbreaking 1978 play "Zoot Suit", by working in dreamscape, in that raw subconscious arena where drama becomes sacred and cathartic.

Based on Valdez's chance reading of a newspaper article in 1985 about an elderly woman who had retained a fetus inside herself for decades, the germ for the play bounced around Valdez's head for many years and began to take shape after the passing of his beloved mother and father in 1994 and 1996, respectively.

This led him to investigate his Yaqui roots and to discover that the spectre of genocide had complicated his search.

"In 1999 I went looking for my relatives and could find no written record whatsoever in the places where they had been born," says Valdez, "What I did find out was that Yaquis generally did not register their children at birth. Even if they did, they changed their names to protect themselves, especially if they crossed the border."

The necessities of assuming a new identity to escape persecution and the horrors of war led Valdez to consider the masks that individuals must put on in order to hide themselves from the ghosts of their pasts.

In "The Mummified Deer", however, Valdez makes it clear that these makeshift emotional shelters will not stand. The result of the house of cards that Mama Chu and her family have built for themselves is a precarious and painful existence full of crumpled self-loathing and unresolved grief. This is a family, much as is expressed in the set design, whose branches have been cut off.

Nonetheless, they are survivors, and their coping mechanism of self-deception has at least allowed them to survive the horrors to which they have been subjected, which include more than a half century of rape, murder, molestation and suicide. But as in a house of cards, each family member is held to the others in a precarious balance of sorts, resulting in an interrelationship which makes them both dependant upon and resentful of one another. Valdez knows, however, that the only solution is to come clean and face the truth.

Never one to judge, Valdez examines each of these characters and gives them the opportunity to expose their wounds for the sake of a greater healing process. The profundity of the family drama which unfolds demonstrates that, despite all they have suffered, the individuals have retained their humanity. These are strong and earthy characters who are as much defined by their pain as they are protective of it. Each holds onto his or her piece of the family secret as if it were the knot which holds them together, ever fearful that it would unravel at the expressing of it.

Although the pain in their tumultuous life has left them scarred, as evidenced by Profe's shaky hand, Oralia's cynical bravado and Mama Chu's retented fetus, their humanity has prevented them from becoming hardened by it. Even Mama Chu, who experienced war, genocide, slavery and rape firsthand, emerges as a strong woman who can at turns stare down the ghosts and demons of her life and at others make peace with them.

The characters in "The Mummified Deer", some of whom were inspired by members of Valdez's own family, are richly complex and surging with warmth, humor and vitality. In turn, the fine actors and actresses Valdez has assembled rise to the occasion as the master director puts them through their paces in this intricate undertaking.

Catalina Maynard's wisecracking Oralia, Ruben Garfias' avuncular Profe and Maria Candelaria's stubbornly inquisitive Armida will long be remembered for their dynamic interpretations. Likewise Vivis as the sprightly yet nervously physical Agustina and Lakin Valdez as both the nimbly graceful Yaqui deer dancer and also the young Profe will garner the audience's respect as they careen about the sloped set.

Alma Martinez's feisty Mama Chu and Marcos Rodriguez's fierce yet funny Cosme Bravo, however, are perhaps the most central characters to the story.

By the end of the play, Mama Chu, the archetypal mother who is destined to give refuge to other "orphans of the storm" and Cosme Bravo (literally "merciless cosmos") the warrior clown and destined and detested agent of history must face each other off and come to an understanding of their respective roles in the larger cosmic riddle.

In fact, Cosme Bravo's entrance as the ringmaster in the rasquache Circo Azteca (another reference to indigenous cosmology) is at once whimsical and frightening, as we intuit that he is the harbinger of more than distracting entertainment. His troupe's skit later in the play about the birth of the "chingale chingale" as he calls it, which traces the origin of the cycle of suffering back to caveman days, is as hilarious as it is disturbing.

Throughout Valdez's work, the spectre of war prefigures prominently as a force which disrupts the fabric of continuity within a family. World War I, the Mexican Revolution, World War II, Korea, the Vietnam War, and now the Yaqui Wars, have each wrought their influence on the lives of Valdez's characters. A century of exploitation, war and diaspora has made them all, in their own ways, orphans of the storm.

A brief review of the wars against imperialism that were being fought in 1900 reads like a list taken from today's headlines: Somalia, the Congo, Colombia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Mexico's wars against its indigenous populations. That these same regions are erupting at the turn of the new century is perhaps an example of how the chingale chingale has a tendency of repeating if the healing is not permitted and the truth is not expressed.

Many of the castmembers in "Mummified Deer" are veterans of Valdez's El Teatro Campesino, and Martinez and Rodriguez were both featured in the original stage production and subsequent film version of "Zoot Suit".

Perhaps this is the reason that the actors and actresses perform so well in this work. They feel like a family.

To call Valdez a "legendary" playwright is not merely to refer to his stature in contemporary Chicano theater, but also to note that he has always worked with the stuff of legend in his work. In the case of "The Mummified Deer," Valdez discovers new source material for his vision and inasmuch has crafted a powerful new play which will resonate globally as a call for healing and rebirth. Wherever the chingale chingale has been felt, which is to say anywhere in the world today, "The Mummified Deer" will find a home. A terrible beauty is born.


© 2000 Victor Payan

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