Woman in long dress stands behind a stack of suitcases which are painted on the inside with tropical scenes.
Ana Santos-Sánchez as Ana Morgana in La Gran Tirana Credit: Courtesy Elio Leturia

La Lupe is in the house. She’s a diva, if you didn’t know. The diva is overwhelming, as divas usually are. The diva is needy and capricious—dare we call her a tyrant?—but the diva also commands our respect, our attention, and finally, our love.

This particular diva is inspired by the life of Lupe Victoria Yolí Raymond. Born in Santiago de Cuba in 1936, La Lupe found fame as a singer with artists like Mongo Santamaría and Tito Puente, before retiring from showbiz for religious reasons in 1980. She died in 1992 at age 55, after going through a prolonged series of personal setbacks, including a spinal injury and a fire that left her homeless. 

But in Rey Andújar’s La Gran Tirana (descarga dramática), now in a vibrant and mesmerizing world premiere with Aguijón Theater (it’s part of the fourth annual Destinos: Chicago International Latino Theater Festival), she’s reimagined as Ana Morgana. A lot of her life story seems on track with the real La Lupe, but this isn’t a standard-issue bio-musical by any stretch of the imagination.

La Gran Tirana (descarga dramática)
Through 11/21: Fri-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM, Aguijón Theater, 2707 N. Laramie, 773-637-5899, aguijontheater.org, $35, 2 for $60, $12 residents of Belmont Cragin (with ID), discounts for teachers and students; free performances Sun with reservation. Performed in Spanish with English supertitles.

The staging is a bit reminiscent of Lanie Robertson’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, where the down-on-her-luck chanteuse is playing a dive, unwinding stories of her troubled life amid standards. But the nightclub where Ana Santos-Sánchez’s singer/force of nature performs, Cafe Rémora, is like something out of David Lynch. 

The host, Rémora Rotunda (Sándor Menéndez, who also directs the show and created the concept with Andújar), might be a Dantean escort taking La Lupe to some fever-dream corner of the afterlife, where she’s doomed to repeat the story of her life and career over and over again. Or maybe this is the world she’s always wanted for herself, one where she can take center stage with assists from Rémora and an excellent three-piece band (led by Adrián J. Ruiz).

In a program note, Andújar writes that the subtitle of “descarga dramática” refers to a descarga, or an improvised jazz session developed in Havana in the 1950s. “Literally, the word also means ‘unloading,’ among other things,” he says.

And La Lupe unloads it all. But the great beauty and strength of this show is that it doesn’t lay out a straightforward chronology of its imagined star’s life. There is just enough mystery to keep us guessing, yet enough details to make us feel like we’re right there next to her on her twisting journey. If she’s an unreliable narrator, she’s also a fascinating one.

She ended up in Manhattan because, as Rémora acidly notes, “Castro and La Lupe couldn’t share a single island.” Stacks of colorful suitcases move around the set, cunningly designed by Augusto Yanacopulos, with her as she tells us of her peripatetic existence. The band on one side is balanced by an altar on the other, backed with dozens of black-and-white photos presumably representing La Lupe’s loved ones, or perhaps others lost to history, hurricanes, and other human tragedies. (The real La Lupe was a practitioner of Santería until late in life, when she embraced evangelical Christianity.) Eventually, the suitcases open, revealing interiors reminiscent of Joseph Cornell boxes. 

If the story teases us, the songs (including the Cuban classic “Guantanamera”) enchant us. Santos-Sánchez’s soulful, passionate, leave-it-all-in-the-road performance, balanced by Menéndez’s wry irony, creates a near-seamless dynamic. And by the end, we realize that it doesn’t really matter if we know all the facts about La Lupe’s life. We know her truth. “My life is the obstacle, not the spectacle,” she tells us. But this is a show that manages to be both intimate and spectacular.