American Mariachi at Alley Theatre: Who Decides Who Gets to Play the Music

The American Mariachi cast at Alley Theatre.
Photo by Lynn Lane
The American Mariachi cast at Alley Theatre.

Editor's note, 2:30 p.m. 9-26-23: Because of a couple cases of COVID-19, Alley Theatre has canceled the performances scheduled for this week and plans to open the show October 3.

Original story:

In American Mariachi, a group of young women decide they want to be mariachis, something that just wasn't done in the 1970s.  In the play packed with music about to open at Alley Theatre, five members of the large cast had to learn to play instruments they'd never played before.

Houston actress Briana J. Resa (What-A-Christmas!, 72 miles to go…) is one of them, and readily acknowledges that while fun, learning to play an instrument as an adult is definitely harder than starting as a child.

"In the show we're learning our instruments and in real life we're learning our instruments. I am playing guitar," she says.

The group is also backed by local mariachi musicians including Saul Avalos, Carlos Manuel Castro, Roy Gonzalez and Nestor Ramirez. "Hearing them play is just mind blowing," Resas says. "They propel the story with music. So this show is actually more

American Mariachi starts with a young woman named Lucha (Gianna DiGregorio Rivera ) who is staying home to take care of her ailing mother who is in the last stages of Alzheimer's. She and her cousin Boli (Resa) discover an old recording of mariachi music and the song briefly awakens her mother's old self. But when Lucha tells her father about it — he earns a living as a mariachi musician — he explodes in rage and breaks the record.

So Lucha decides to form her own mariachi band and starts putting it together. Problem is: no one including her father thinks much of the possibility that females could also play mariachi music.

The play is by prolific playwright José Cruz González and directed by KJ Sanchez (Quixote Nuevo, What-A-Christmas!) whom Resa has worked with before in Houston and Arizona. The 14-person cast began rehearsals in August, Resa says. "My character is  Hortensia Pérez; she goes by Boli. Boli's journey, this whole show,  is really about female empowerment as well. It's really about having the bravery and the courage In the face of a lot of no."

Boli has two icons who inspire her, Resa says. American labor leader and civil rights activist Delores Huerta and journalist and social-political activist Gloria Steinem. "My character idolizes those people. That's the energy I take it from, that being a woman doesn't mean you can't do things."

Before she was a fulltime actor, Resa was in the Alley Theatre education department. "I used to do pre- and post show workshops for the Alzheimer's Association of Houston. I remember those talks with those groups and I remember seeing the progressive disease. I remember meeting with those groups that were all over the spectrum of that disease. When someone has Alzheimer's or memory losses, it's important to keep them socially engaged and keep them connected still."

"It's just a hard thing to have to go through with a family member and anyone who has to do it I think they've got the biggest hearts in the world. And we see that on stage. The show does have moments that just rock you a little bit."

Resa even took the special step of flying out to California to see another production of the play she says to get an inspiration for the show. "Just to use that experience as a little nugget of inspiration."

The show first performed in 2018, originally was designed as a one-act, but the show has continued to evolve and the Alley version will be a two-act, just as the Pacific Conservatory Theatre version was, Resa says. The Alley is setting it in 1974.

As for how some people complain about mariachi music as being too loud or intrusive when they are eating out — there's even a line in the show that refers to this — Resa points out that it's a really vast genre. "Mariachi music is tradition, it is family, it is community." Mariachi music is used a lot for celebrations, be they life or death, she says.

"The whole theme of the show is how music is memory and how music can connect us. It's a show that's so touching and so provoking and is so funny."

Opening Night is September 27 October 3 with performances running 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.