Published in KPBS On Air Magazine August 1992
Marga Gomez doesn’t forget anything. In “Memory Tricks,” her autobiographical performance monologue, she remembers every nuance, gesture and intonation from her past. Gomez is recreating her childhood and, in infinite detail, recalling her mother, who started out as a flashy Puerto Rican mambo and belly dancer, and wound up a victim of Alzheimer’s disease.
The piece is very funny and deeply touching. With wide eyes and high energy, Gomez slips easily among colorful characterizations: from a sleazeball at a corner bodega to her seven year-old self, to her accented, femme fatale of a mother.
She calls herself a counterculture comedian, or a “performance ham,” who’s been doing standup comedy for years. She came by that naturally: her father was a Cuban standup comic and songwriter who worked the Latino nightclubs. As a child growing up in 1960s Harlem , she was largely ignored, playing second-fiddle to her parents’ entertainment careers. After their divorce, she had rocky relationships with both, and lost contact for prolonged periods. At the time her father died, her mother had disappeared, run away to Paris , leaving children and Husband #2 behind. After a year, she returned to a bitter divorce, which was followed by her Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 1988, at age 56.
This is deeply personal stuff for Gomez. And, like the piece itself, she swings recklessly in conversation from hilarious one-liners to piercing sarcasm to gut-wrenching observations on grief and illness.
Watching her mother in decline, Gomez became “paranoid that I would start forgetting stuff.” When, late in 1990, she was contacted by the UCSD Contemporary Black Arts Program to perform at its national conference on “Cultural Diversity in the American Theatre,” she found the perfect impetus to write the cathartic piece. Of course, when she was called, she told them she had a show all ready to go; as an inveterate procrastinator, she didn’t put the piece together (with the help of director David Ford) until two weeks before the performance date. “Memory Tricks” ultimately played in San Francisco , New York , here at Sushi (January 1992) and now, from July 23-August 30, at the Hahn Cosmopolitan Theatre, as a presentation of the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company. Following the San Diego run, Gomez takes the show on tour, and an excerpt will air soon on HBO.
The work has been very well received. Gomez has been cited particularly for her depth and clarity of character development. She’s never had any formal acting training, but she was a member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and Lilith, a feminist San Francisco theatre company, as well as the Latino comedy group, Culture Clash. “That lack of training may actually be of benefit,” said Gomez in her friendly, straightforward, fast-talking way. “I feel original. I don’t think I sound like everyone else. Anyway, this play is something acting class would not have helped. It’s a Zen thing. You just do it, feel it.”
Gomez feels it, all right. There are times in the piece when you sense that she has to fight back real tears. These are very intimate moments and memories for her, especially in the second half, when the humor turns to anguish, as she transforms herself into a mother who is losing speech and coherence.
“It will never be easy to do,” Gomez confesses. “But one of the nice things about it is it’s like I’m channeling my mother. It’s a way for me to be with her, to bring her back… Before she got sick, our relationship really wasn’t good. I had a lot of anger and resentment. I felt ripped off as a kid and as a teenager. I wanted more from her. Then I’d get mad at her, lose my patience: ‘Why do I have to deal with this? You hardly dealt with me.’ But gradually, I came to understand that she can’t control herself now, and there’s no recovery… Now, our only communication is I try to express the love that’s in my heart. It’s hard to know what she’s thinking. I believe she understands, just on another plane of reality.”
Not long ago, Gomez went to see her mother in a convalescent home in New York . “I did some of the show lines for her,” Gomez says. “She seemed to enjoy it. But then, at one point, she kinda got pissed off.”
In her younger, more flamboyant days, Gomez’ mother (AKA “Margo the Exotic”) used to get annoyed with her daughter about the appropriateness of her behavior, especially her lack of femininity. She was strict in her belief that every female should walk, talk and act like a lady. Gomez, a lesbian feminist, “never could fit that image.” But she’s come around, to a degree. “I’m very much into androgyny,” she admits. “But right now, I’m enjoying a feminine stage. I actually own three dresses, though I’m still not very comfortable in heels. My mother could not walk in flats; her feet could only accommodate high heels.” Gomez prefers Doc Martin boots, but she’s open to compromise. She’s still sorting out her feelings, coming to terms with her mother, the illness, her grief. “Memory Tricks” is a small, subjective piece, but it resonates strongly with parents and children and anyone who’s dealt closely with terminal illness.
“It’s about the mother-daughter bond,” she says. “And it’s about loss, and finding somebody when you lose them… I always wanted to have a clearing with my mother, to say just what I felt about my childhood. But I was always too cowardly to do it. Now it’s too late. I had to forgive her on my own. And it’s worked.”
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.