- A Discussion of Destiny of Desire by Karen Zacarías at the South Coast Repertory Theatre
To begin this discussion, how would you synthesize the plot of this play?
Very complicated: children exchanged at birth, multiple affairs and intrigues, diverging plot lines too numerous to mention, and a roller coaster of twists and turns layered upon one another like a baroque wedding cake! It was not only engaging, but wildly humorous as well. In your estimation, as a historian and critic, how does it fit into the genre of US Latino theatre?
Let’s start with the fact that the play begins with the entire ensemble addressing the audience in unison with the following declaration: “Destiny of Desire: an unapologetic telenovela in two acts. We are here to change the social order. Deal with it.” This is in the spirit of the early influences of Brecht on early Chicano theatre: mixing politics with art.
That got quite a laugh, as you would expect, and set the tone for the remainder of the performance. What did you think about the style of the production?
Of course, there have always been sketches and brief plays that parody the telenovela format and Latinxs’ obsession with that genre. But I know of no other play of this magnitude and professional caliber in the history of what we now call Latinx theatre that takes the parody to such extremes. Zacarías and director Valenzuela have tapped into this universally popular television form, giving the audience wonderfully stereotypical characters and situations that make us laugh while never letting us forget it’s theatre and that there is a real world just outside the security of the theater with issues that demand attention. They do this by stopping the action and giving what [End Page 247] the playwright terms “Brechtian quotes” that reveal pertinent national facts that (progressively) contextualize the issue in the scene.
Mixing Brecht’s Epic Theater with melodrama is like going to an “Asian-Cuban” restaurant in Manhattan; you end up with a mixture of chop suey and plátano frito—and somehow it works. At first the Brechtian quotes startled me, because it stopped the action of the telenovela. However, by the end of the first act, the juxtaposition congealed into a wacky synergy.
The style of the telenovela is heightened by the direct addresses to the audience. And although this stopped the action, the comments were brief and usually elicited a laugh or even comments in the audience. For example, when an actor says to the audience, “68% of women in the United States say they would have an affair if they knew they would never get caught. [Pregnant pause.] Orange County is in the United States,” the audience laughed uproariously. We were in Orange County, and the action continued.
In Latin America I would wager that most telenovelas are written by men for women, so it was refreshing to see a play like Destiny of Desire, written by a woman and in which the women controlled their own agency.
At the end the women had agency, but throughout the play they did not. Remember, this is a fictional city in Mexico called Bellarica, which only the Spanish-speakers would know translates to “beautiful, rich woman.” And, as in so many telenovelas, the disparity between rich and poor is unapologetically appalling. But here, the play highlights these important class distinctions as we root for the underdogs, of course.
I wondered why the play was set in “an abandoned theater in Orange County, California.” Why not the city of Santa Ana, where the population is mostly Latino? When it moves to the Goodman in Chicago, will it be in a loft in Little Pilson? Also a bit confusing was the fact that we are supposed to be in Mexico, yet the players were speaking perfect English and perfect Spanish, including songs in Spanish. It was nice that the actors were completely bilingual.
As you know, having had your plays produced in Spanish, English, or Spanglish, language has always presented its own set of problems in...