In American Mariachi at Alley Theatre, Traditions Are Embraced in a New Way

Both in love, Amalia and Federico Morales dancing and enjoying Mariachi
Both in love, Amalia and Federico Morales dancing and enjoying Mariachi Photo by Lynn Lane

Thankfully, Covid-19 only delayed the opening of José Cruz González’s comedy-drama American Mariachi at the Alley Theatre.

Before the first line is uttered, it’s clear from the set that the play takes place in several locations. A hotel, a bar, a garage, a salon, a church. Signage like “El Infierno” and “La Michoacana." Lights go up and the wall turns to reveal the living room.

The Morales family is on full display. From the dated furniture to the picture of John F. Kennedy hanging on the wall, it’s clear this play does not take place in 2023. Forced to drop out of nursing school, Lucha Morales (Gianna Digregorio Rivera) is the primary caregiver of her dementia-affected mother, Amalia (Sarita Ocón). Her mother struggles with memory loss and is progressively getting worse. She hallucinates often of her Tia Carmen (Maria Alegre) playing mariachi and singing.

Lucha’s cousin, Boli (Briana J. Resa) is once again unemployed, and Lucha’s father, Federico (Orlando Arriaga) plays Mariachi and makes his living from gigs. A traditionally conservative man, he limits Lucha’s dreams and opportunities based on her gender.

In the hopes of sparking her mother’s memory and thanks in part to Our Bodies, Ourselves  —  the influence of Boli — she crafts a scheme to start an all-female mariachi band.

They meet Isabel (Diana Irais Alcaraz-Villa), Gabby (Ellissa Cuellar), and Soyla (Maggie Bofill) to round out their mariachi quintet. The chemistry among the women is palpable despite the age differences and life experiences.
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The all-female Mariachi rehearsing
Photo by Lynn Lane

Rivera’s performance is bubbly enough to always keep audiences on her side and grounded enough where she never veers off into the land of naïveté. Her chemistry with Resa, albeit cousins, is the perfect balance of sister and friend. Their playful reminiscing and fun vocal harmonizing reveal the depths of their bond.

From the moment Resa walks on stage with her '70s bell bottoms and chunky heels, her stage presence is immediate. She commands the room. She’s more than spouting off women’s liberation 101. It’s clear that she believes and lives it. The swagger dampens in Act 2 after practicing with the Mariachi. While there’s a moment in Act 2 when she’s tough, there is a narrative shift from Act 1 to Act 2.

While Act 1 relies more on Lucha and Boli to drive plot, Act 2 must pivot toward Lucha and Amalia to drive the story so that the themes of family, tradition, and female empowerment found through music, mariachi and Mexican culture are more explicit.
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The Mariachi Coronelas playing their first public performance.
Photo by Lynn Lane
The dialogue becomes more canned in Act 2 as the characters' information dumps about mariachi, sexism and female independence become more obvious to the ear. Questions are asked and resolutions take place because it's the end of the play. Though unconvincing, enough emotional goodwill is bought through the music and acting beforehand that it's acceptable.

Since Act 2 relies more on Lucha and Amalia, it brings Ocón and Arriaga to the forefront since they become more relevant as Lucha’s parents.

Ocón marvels as the wistful and confused partner. Without dialogue, her eyes convey the complete story of Amalia’s memories and thoughts. In a standout scene between her and Arriaga over arroz con pollo, the silence between them speaks volumes.

While some think monologues are where an actor’s true gifts shine, it’s what actors do when they have to use their instrument — not the playwright’s. Ocón’s varied expressions and controlled movements makes vivid and clear Amalia’s interior world despite her inability to articulate the memories herself.

So many of the exciting elements of this production are not on the page. The set design (Tanya Orellana) makes crafty and efficient use of all the stage space. The rotating turntable platform for the multiple scene locations is thrilling to watch and allows for more seamless transitions.
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All the Mariachi and ensemble in the final song number
Photo by Lynn Lane
The singing of the actors, especially Alcaraz-Villa’s, is impressive. The final trajes worn by the five women are a sight to behold (costume design by Christopher Vergara). The Mariachi music (Mariachi direction by Jose Chabelo Longoria) amplifies the actions in the story while also never failing to showcase its cultural importance.

Though the second act builds up to an unconvincing but expected climax, it’s a mistake to overlook the impeccable design choices, stellar performances, and narrative themes.. The story shows the relationship between family and cultural heritage where holding on to the latter can always be a way to maintain a connection with the former. Traditions matter even if they need to go through a little revamping to make them more contemporary.

Performances continue through October 22 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursday , 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and 7 p.m. Sundays at Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For more information, call 713-220-5700 or visit $26-$81.
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Contributor Ada Alozie was a former contributor for Rescripted, an online Chicago arts blog, for two years before moving to Houston and joining the Houston Press team. The majority of her experience in theater comes from her previous work experience as both playwright and director. She has developed work with the Goodman Theatre and Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. She is, also, a member of the Dramatists Guild.