If you’re in the mood for some serious decolonizing after the Jeanine Cummins American Dirt backlash, Isaac Gomez has you covered. In The Leopard Play, or Sad Songs for Lost Boys, now in a blistering and poignant world premiere at Steep under Laura Alcalá Baker’s direction, Gomez returns to his own roots in El Paso—a border city that not only reflects the many cracks and divisions running through our national identity right now, but that is also internalized by the character identified as “Son.”
The middle child in a family of Mexican American men, Son (Brandon Rivera) is gay, lives in Chicago, and has seldom returned to El Paso since graduating high school. Even his younger brother (Juan Muñoz), a college student in Oregon who is also gay, can’t count on Son returning his phone calls. But when Dad (Victor Maraña), whose nickname is “Leopard,” requests a homecoming to honor the ten-year anniversary of his own brother’s death, Son grudgingly complies.
Mom is absent working long hours at a Walmart (not the one where a white supremacist massacred 22 people this past August, though that horror is mentioned and Gomez’s mother does work at an El Paso Walmart). Dad works odd jobs. Dad’s two other surviving brothers (and Son’s own oldest brother) spend most of their time tossing back Coors, belting along to Elton John (“Rocket Man” has particular meaning to them), and studiously avoiding speaking the truth about what really happened to their fallen sibling.
Through flashbacks, we get a fragmented but sharp portrait of how Son’s attempts to avoid the violence and lies that seem to define the men in his family have left him divided and distrustful of others and of his own desires. His interactions with a former lover (Alec Coles Perez) offer some respite from the fractious men at home, but also force him to confront how much of himself he’s kept away from those who love him.
I won’t pretend to know how much of Gomez’s story comes directly from his own life. But what he’s crafted here is a story that demands that we, as well as Son, begin seeing the men in this play as more than embodiments of toxic masculinity. These are men who are capable of great sacrifice in the face of their own fears.
There is harshness and anguish, but also wit, empathy, and beauty woven throughout Gomez’s script, which won’t be a surprise to anyone who saw La Ruta, his play about the missing and murdered women of Ciudad Juárez (right across the border from El Paso). The central message—you can’t outrun your family forever, and sooner or later you have to wrestle that shit to the ground—is certainly a, well, familiar one, covered by everyone from Eugene O’Neill to Sam Shepard. The story comes together here more in bits and glimpses, with big revelations and smaller realizations sometimes awkwardly woven together (which is, let’s face it, the way life unfolds in everything but conventional “well-made plays”). But the ensemble commits to all of it with such rawness and vulnerability that The Leopard Play is hard to shake off after leaving the theater. v