Rick Najera

at Goodman Studio Theatre, through July 18

Machismo is the sort of sociological and psychological issue many encounter without real comprehension. Despite the fact that machismo is cross-cultural, and cross-economic, it’s a subject many avoid, often the target of easy ridicule rather than serious study.

South American machismo has been studied, however, in such books as Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude and Samuel Ramos’s Profile of Man and Culture in Mexico. But the sort of machismo one associates with Latin America can also be encountered in this country and in such far-flung places as Japan, Italy, Ghana, Turkey, and Russia (to name a few). The languages may differ, but the pride, the sense of brotherhood, and the simultaneous love and mistrust of women are all the same. The art of such 20th-century icons as Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and Diego Rivera cannot be studied without an understanding of their machismo.

In his entertaining one-man show The Pain of the Macho, at the Goodman Studio Theatre, Rick Najera explores the mechanics of Latin machismo. Though he avoids some of its more distasteful aspects, his writing is adept, wise, direct, and funny; his searing barbs cut to the heart of things, and his unblinking honesty produces big laughs. In the resulting crazy mix Najera looks at the riddle of machismo in America from many sides, through the eyes of several characters.

Though the performance was seamless, I found that one of the show’s most captivating, touching, and funny portions came when Najera returned afterward to talk to the audience, answering questions and speaking frankly about his experiences growing up in LA as a third-generation Mexican American. Because some of these bits of his background were so full of color and life, one would have liked to hear more of them in the show itself. It might also have been improved had Najera included some of the more treacherous aspects of machismo, such as some men’s refusal to wear condoms and deliberate avoidance of any sort of monogamy.

Najera begins with a fairly obvious setup: an announcer says that The Pain of the Macho will not be seen tonight, then we overhear an argument, entreaties, one man speaking in a singsong voice with a stereotypically guttural Mexican accent, another in the white-bread announcer’s voice. Najera appears and addresses the audience directly, talking about his grandfather, a man who raised fighting cocks. He was macho but nurturing, strong and soft–and here the split begins. Najera brings out a Day of the Dead altar, turns his back to the audience, lights some candles, and makes the sign of the cross. He turns around to face the audience and points out various objects on the altar, explaining their significance. He pulls out his grandfather’s journal and says that his grandfather died in an old people’s home because his family had become so American they weren’t able to take care of him as they would have in Mexico. Here one sees a flicker pass across Najera’s face, almost a visible coloring–there is real emotion here, and one realizes that this study of “the macho” will come from firsthand experience. Using this apparently true story as a starting point for his examination of machismo, Najera says he will do the show tonight. By this point he’s hooked the audience into his monologue just by being himself.

The lights dim again and Najera moves offstage, reappearing as the busboy Alejandro, who loves blonds (unfortunately he doesn’t examine why). Alejandro meets a certain well-known performance artist (he doesn’t say who but later tells us this is a true story) who invites him to her “performance space slash apartment.” They have what he calls a sort of “Postman Always Rings Twice encounter,” he calls her afterward relentlessly, and finally she spurns him, politely and absurdly, by means of a short message on his answering machine.

Another touching, strong characterization is Najera’s exploration of the legendary entertainer-producer Desi Arnaz, a representative of all intelligent, innovative men who are not taken seriously because of their Latin accents. Najera makes a fantasy list of all the “Latin” sitcoms Arnaz might have pitched to the networks and never been credited for. A wickedly funny character is Miss East LA, a woman who does not want to relinquish her crown. Especially wonderful here is Najera’s great comic gift for mincing, bitchy petulance.

Though machismo remains a fact of life, Najera manages to make it seem antiquated and quaint, something of a dinosaur.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rudy Meyers.