Porchlight Music Theatre got charged with whitewashing last year for casting Jack DeCesare, an actor of Italian-American descent, as Dominican-born character Usnavi in Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s In the Heights. The protests included a town hall meeting at Victory Gardens Theater featuring six panelists and an SRO crowd. In the course of things somebody asked, “Who has the right to tell stories like the one told in In the Heights?” There was a lot of appreciative finger snapping for the panelist who answered: “Only the people the stories are about.”
But which people are those? I don’t think they were at the town hall. That room was full of folks with arts degrees, far better educated than Usnavi, a poor man who sells coffee in a rough neighborhood. I wondered whether it had occurred to any of the finger snappers that the logic of identity politics isn’t as, well, black-and-white as it seems. That it can, for instance, be applied as easily to class and acculturation as to race—disqualifying even a person of color from the category of the oppressed.
Based on the evidence of Fade, I’d say it’s occurred to Tanya Saracho. An increasingly celebrated former Chicagoan who now works in television (most recently on ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder), Saracho has written a workplace comedy—running now, coincidentally, at Victory Gardens in a coproduction with Teatro Vista—that rips reductive notions about ethnic solidarity and economic privilege.
Lucia is a 28-year-old novelist (one published book: The Definitive Guide to Nothing) who comes from Mexico but can negotiate ethnicity at will—”code-switching between Spanish and English,” as Saracho’s character description puts it, much like “the rest of her (globalized) generation.” “I have schooling,” she declares. “I have degrees.” Telling herself she needs the money to write novel number two, she’s just taken a job writing for a TV show that sounds, from the snippets of dialogue we hear, like a crappy English-language version of a telenovela (“I’m from here; this barrio raised me. . . . That’s always been my curse”).
A broken bookshelf puts her in contact with Abel, the night janitor, whose ethnic coding she initially interprets as Mexico Mexican. It takes a very funny, slow-building bit during which she assails him with Spanish before she realizes she’s wrong: he’s California Mexican, in fact, with a stubborn prole traditionalist streak.
Lucia befriends the reluctant Abel, partly out of loneliness and partly to vent about her situation as the new kid in the writers’ room. As delineated by Saracho, directed by Sandra Marquez, and embodied by Sari Sanchez, Lucia is a piece of work: loud, impatient, bilingually logorrheic, self-involved, myopic. And did I say self-involved? Yet her struggles are never minimized. She really is dealing with an industrial culture only slightly less dire than the one we’ve been hearing about since Harvey Weinstein got outed—where being Latina, in particular, subjects her to a double whammy of predation and condescension. Her white male colleagues call her “mamacita.” Her boss treats her as an office girl and worse. She gets threats whispered in her ear. She’s overwhelmed.
At first, anyway. Lucia’s got schooling, after all, she’s got degrees. And as the recipient of certain bourgeois privileges, she’s capable of accessing both the sophistication and, in her feminist parlance, the “ovaries” she needs to find the levers of power and throw them.
A few years older than Lucia, with a daughter of his own, Abel swallows his essential prickliness to become her ally—which is to say, her sounding board and cheerleader. It’s one of those relationships, though, that inevitably arrives at a point where someone is surprised to find she doesn’t really know much at all about the other—like the tale behind the “Semper Fi” tattoo on his right forearm. In a neatly, painfully choreographed final scene, Saracho and director Marquez show us precisely where Lucia and Abel’s ethnic bond leads.
Fade loses its balance at times. Sanchez’s hysterics, apt as they are, can become so hard to take that it’s a wonder her Lucia can win Abel’s genuine if bemused loyalty. At the other end of the spectrum, it would be nice to have more concrete information about Abel. Strands that are left hanging for strategic reasons might be tied up without prejudicing the show. Still, Sanchez is formidable in her willowy way, reconciling Lucia’s seemingly schizzy nature. Eddie Martinez’s standoffishness as Abel is paradoxically engaging. v