A Play Called Hope

Hosted by

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theatre for KCRW.

On its surface Hope, by Evelina Fernandez, is a play about a Mexican-American nuclear family in the 1960's.

Two teenage boys, two teenage girls, Mom, Dad. The girls' bedroom is pink with posters of JFK. The boys' bedroom is green with a poster of a corvette. They're a typical, almost generic, American family that loves their president, fears nuclear war, and is struggling to live the American dream. Of course, it's a little more complicated than that: Dad's a philanderer, Mom's resisting an overly attentive compadre, and there's also an unexpected pregnancy.

Their story is interwoven with iconic video clips from JFK's presidency: the inauguration speech, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and finally the assassination and John John's salute. So between short scenes of family life, the playwright taps us on the shoulder reminding us 'not only is this family scared, so was the country.'

Strung between the video and the family drama, the characters sing pop hits from the early 60's. We hear The Marvelette's "Please Mr. Postman," the Isley Brothers' "Shout," The Chordette's "Mr Sandman." The songs' lyrics, like the video, underscore the family's emotions. When love hurts we hear "Love Hurts." As Mom and Dad argue about infidelity, the teenage son breaks into a plaintive cover of "Shout." When he sings about loving, needing, wanting, pleasing, the teenie-bopper lyrics take on a dark and poignant undertone and we rediscover the song as a commentary on the coming apart of a marriage.

Sounds like a complicated structure, right? It is and playwright Fernandez struggles to balance the power of the past with the present of her story. The video and pop songs add weight to her drama but her nostalgia keeps the family's story at arms length. We lose the emotional intimacy with these characters and their struggle. John John's heartbreaking goodbye to his father is more immediate on grainy video than watching this family mourn the loss of their patriarch onstage.

But, of course, this story of the 60's is also about where we are now (after all, the play's called Hope.) Playwright Fernandez is trying to conjure the 'Camelot' of our memory to speak to the politics of our present. She aims to integrate the Mexican-American immigrant experience into the larger national dialogue.

But dramatically, Hope squanders a chance to reveal something deeper about our own political moment. When the family's power is cut off because Dad's gone and they can't afford the utility bill, it's hard not to be reminded of a recent news report that Latino families lost 66 percent of their household wealth in this recession. I couldn't help but wish that the play spoke to that struggle as clearly as it evokes the Kennedy years.

Hope plays at LATC in downtown LA through November 13.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theatre for KCRW.

Running time: 2 hours with an intermission.

Banner image: (Clockwise from left) Esperanza America Ibarra, Dyana Ortelli, Keith McDonald, Dru Davis and Olivia Delgado in the Latino Theater Company's production of Hope: Part II of A Mexican Trilogy. Photo by Hector Cruz Sandoval