KPBS AIRDATE: NOVEMBER 10, 2000
History and mystery have always featured prominently in the work of Luis Valdez, the father of Chicano theater. But in “Mummified Deer,” his first new play in 14 years, all his recurrent themes of family and fantasy, cultural pride and cultural imperialism, politics and plunder are woven together seamlessly, into a beautifully warm and colorful tapestry.
Like his contemporary, African American playwright August Wilson, Valdez has devoted his life to telling the story of his people. This time, he has turned the spotlight inward, relating some of his own personal story as well. The recent death of both his parents inspired him to look further, to go deeper, to unearth the family secrets.
It’s all about family secrets. In crossing the U.S. border, Valdez tells us, every family chooses to obscure painful elements of the past in order to create a new future. And then, every individual must choose to follow tradition or follow a dream. Every decision carries profound ramifications. This is the immigrant experience, embodied in one Mexican-Indian family. Mama Chu is the matriarch, who, at age 84, spends most of the play in a hospital bed. Her abdominal tumor turns out to be a mummified fetus that she’s carried for 60 years. Under constant oppression and duress, this wasn’t all she had to hide.
Like Mama Chu, both the grandmothers of the playwright were of Yaqui Indian descent. The Yaqui, a Northern Mexico tribe, are known for their Easter-time ritual Deer Dance that merges Christianity with Indian ways. Here, the Deer Dancer, gracefully and majestically played by Lakin Valdez, the playwright’s son, is a constant, silent presence, magically representing both the Yaqui world and the ‘other world’ after death. The signature Valdez comic relief works wonderfully here in the circus clown Cosme Bravo, hilariously portrayed by Marcos Rodriguez, and in the broad, bumbling humor of the Anglo doctor and racist nurse. But it’s the drama of this family, these three generations of women, that move and touch us, even if the characters aren’t fully fleshed out. Even if we don’t get a strong sense of their interior life. Even if there’s a bit too much of a didactic history lesson in the second act. This is a little-known piece of the Mexican-Indian past about which Valdez is passionate, and his passion is infectious.
As director, Valdez has assembled a superlative cast, and placed them in a magnificent setting. Guilio Perrone has created a thrilling space, splendidly lit by Chris Rynne. It’s a smoothly sensuous bowl, gently lifted from the desert, petroglyphs and all. Its rounded, earth-tone edges allow the frightened deer dancer to skittle up the walls, watching the unfolding action from perilous positions. More than ever before, Valdez has coupled his heritage with his heart, not distancing us with historical fact or comic agitprop antics. This deluded, dysfunctional family is painfully recognizable. It’s a mirror for all American immigrants, a tribute to the playwright’s ancestry, and a breathtaking culmination of his life’s work.
©2001 Patté Productions Inc.