Stage

What-A-Christmas!: The Tale of a Latina Fast Food Server On Christmas Eve

A new kind of Christmas Carol debuts at Alley Theatre.
A new kind of Christmas Carol debuts at Alley Theatre. Banner by Alley Theatre

There will be another Scrooge at the Alley Theatre this year. This one works the overnight Christmas Eve shift at a fast food restaurant modeled on — well you'll get it from the title — and is as grumpy as her customers.

What-A-Christmas!, running in the downstairs Neuhaus Theatre at the same time as the more traditional A Christmas Carol is performed upstairs (although it too is a new adaptation) is designed for an adult audience and features Briana J. Resa.

And before you jump to the conclusion that anyone saddled with a graveyard shift on Christmas Eve deserves to be disgruntled, know this: Resa's character Margot asks for the shift every year. It's a tradition. 

Playwright Isaac Gómez (who uses they, them pronouns) grew up in El Paso but since moved to Chicago and most recently Los Angeles to write for TV (Narcos, Mexico) , film and theater. They centered their story in Houston specifically with an eye to our diverse demographics — a city they have been well acquainted with thanks to a good friend and a lot of family in Houston.

The Alley commissioned Gómez to come up with a new Christmas play to take the place of the long-running Santaland Diaries, a one-man play adapted by Joe Mantello from a David Sedaris essay.

Gómez wanted to make sure the play painted "a holistic picture of a very complicated and complex city with a deep history and a rich culture."

"One of the contingencies of the commission was because this was going to replace Santaland Diaries, what we knew pretty early on was that this was going  to be a one-person show. When I think about Christmas and I think about history and tradition, Christmas Carol is obviously a pretty iconic tale that theaters do all over the country this time of year.

"It's an incredible story and one that I couldn’t quite find myself in in a way. It takes place in Victorian London England and the language is very literary and Scrooge is an old grump which is fine and valid and I think there is a lot to glean from that story," Gómez said .

"During Christmas  I find myself sometimes turning into a Scrooge and over the years with the help of therapy and mental health resources really uncovering why do the holidays make me so upset, what is this about this time of year  that makes me feel lonely and frustrated and stuck? I think the holidays are a time of incredible joy and also a time of incredible reflection.

"I was really interested in seeing how the structure of A Christmas Carol might be experienced through the lens of a modern day Latina."

The setting is Christmas Eve and Margot is greeted by her dead best friend Jackie Marley who lets her know that spirits are on their way. Resa, so memorable in Between Riverside and Crazy at 4th Wall Theatre Co., Alma en Venta at Stages, The Hunchback of Seville at Mildred's Umbrella, carries the show by herself, added by a few special effects.

Gómez said they picked this particular scenario for their main character because presenting the viewpoints of people whose lives are often overlooked is very important.

"My mom, she's worked at Walmart for the last 25 years so growing up many of my childhood memories were being with her at Walmart especially during the holidays," Gómez said. "There's something about a working class service industry job,  being in fast food, being in retail, that is pretty unglamorous and yet the people who work here a large part of it is trying to find magic in the mundane, trying to find purpose in a place that seemingly doesn't find purpose in them."

Gómez grew up near a Whataburger and wanted to play the play in a familiar setting. Although they never worked at one, the University of Texas at Austin grad said several friends had worked in a Whataburger or other fast food restaurant. Gómez did field trips to Whataburger and asked employees what it was like to work there, what did they think was important to say about working in a place like that. .

"There was some really surprising stuff which I didn't expect," Gómez said. "One is Whataburger, surprisingly, is a pretty great place to work. A lot of them, especially the younger folks said 'I worked at a bunch of fast food places but they treat you really well here and the peoole are good and the vibes are good.'  Apparently Whataburger is the place to work."

Gómez applauds the work of Briana Resa in a show that he said is the most challenging physically that they has ever done. "In terms of an actor's skillset it requires an incredible amount of physical comedy, a good singing voice, dance abilities, there's so much and she has attacked it head on with such precision and such grace and such brilliance.

"You're going to find yourself in her. She is crass; she is stuck; she is grieving; she's funny; she's sassy; she's so many things that we recognize in ourselves and the people we love.

"She is a Houston local actor who has risen through the ranks. So for her to carry a show of this stature. She's a force to be reckoned with."

While the script is pretty set but there a lot of references very specific to Houston that may incite an audience response, he said. "There will be things that only Houstonians will get and then there will be things that only Houstonian Mexicans will get."

Ticket sales have already exceeded expectations, he said. "I think what that showcases is Houstonians desire to feel reflected and to be seen. There's a huge Latina population here in Houston and the state of Texas not just  Mexican but all over South and Central America and to see this beautiful brown woman in a  huge banner on the top of the Alley, that is not nothing."

Performances are scheduled December 7-30 at 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and Friday December 23. For more information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $69.
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