A&E

The ghost of culture's past

New play, 'The Mathematics of Love,' is both intimate and epic

A new play by Stanford University Artist-in-Residence Cherríe Moraga tackles some big topics: conquest and colonization; mother-daughter relationships; history and mythology; feminism; death and dying; time travel; and Alzheimer's disease. "The Mathematics of Love" will make its premiere this week, staged by the university's department of Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS).

Set over the course of a night in the lobby of Los Angeles' Biltmore Hotel, the show revolves around Peaches, an elderly Mexican-American woman suffering from Alzheimer's disease. As dementia forces her to slip away from the present, Peaches has an encounter with La MalinXe (sometimes spelled Malinche), a pivotal figure in Mexican history.

MalinXe was an indigenous Nahua woman born to a royal family around the turn of the 16th century who, after her father's death, was allegedly sold into slavery to another tribe by her mother. She came into contact with Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and, because of her education and ability to speak multiple languages, became his interpreter, adviser and lover as he led the conquest of Mexico.

Opinions on MalinXe's role in Mexican history have shifted over time. Though she was portrayed in a very positive light by the Spaniards, and sometimes considered the mother of the modern Mexican people, her name around the time of the Mexican Revolution became synonymous with "traitor." MalinXe is also sometimes identified with the mythological La Llorona, a ghost who haunts the Earth crying for her lost children.

"La MalinXe is used as a term to describe folks who have betrayed their culture. It becomes a reflection of the culture at that time, when people wanted to distance themselves from their colonial past and the Spanish empire," said Karina Gutierrez, a Stanford graduate student who's serving as the production's dramaturg as well as playing the role of Peaches' estranged daughter.

In playwright Moraga's hands, a more sympathetic and nuanced view of MalinXe emerges.

"The figure of MalinXe is somewhat of an archetype in Mexican-American thought and politics because she is someone for whom the conquest of Mexico is blamed, the loss of indigenous culture is blamed," Moraga said. "She's the female figure of our past, kind of like a Mexican Eve, considered from a masculine point of view."

Moraga and other Chicana artists have offered a feminist perspective on MalinXe and her legacy, Gutierrez said, one that challenges the notion of her as a traitor and explores "who MalinXe might have really been, maybe even criticizes why she is used so negatively in popular culture."

The play's characters, she said, "hash out their past in a way that's not necessarily reflected in our history books. It talks about how we connect to family, how we accept or negate aspects of family, and hopefully (audiences) will re-contextualize how they view themselves in a historical continuum."

In "The Mathematics of Love," the anachronistic presence of MalinXe leads Peaches (who's married to an Anglo American) to reconnect with her past and reconsider her identity. MalinXe's complicated relationships with her family and culture in some ways parallel Peaches' own life.

"It's about her needing to confront the ghost of her past ... to forgive herself for having desire as a woman and allow herself to pass on, pass out of this world," director Misha Chowdhury said.

"The play is an effort to help her come to reconciliation so she can die well," Moraga added.

The playwright grew up in southern California with a Mexican-American mother and an Anglo-American father and took some inspiration from her own experience.

"My mother had Alzheimer's, and it really helped me realize there is a kind of lucidity, a clarity that comes with forgetting, (with) viscerally remembering in our body things that we have censored," she said, of the way in which Peaches' fractured consciousness allows her to access deeper insights.

Moraga has taught at Stanford for nearly two decades, in both TAPS and the department of Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. She's been a longtime mentor to Chowdhury, who as a Stanford undergrad acted in one of her plays.

Working with Moraga "really opened up a world for me in understanding what it means to be living on this continent, in this day and age, as someone who is a descendent of colonized people," he said. "This is still colonized land; the indigenous inhabitants of this land are still here whether or not the dominant narrative chooses to acknowledge their existence. That was a powerful idea for me to come to understand. I have carried that with me throughout my development as an artist."

Chowdhury is based on the East Coast but returned to Stanford to direct Moraga's new play, as well as co-teach a theater class with her.

"It's been amazing," he said. "There's something still quite radical and courageous about the insistence upon feminism that is present in this play in particular; it's still dangerous," he said. "Cherríe and I are learning more and more about each other as collaborators, and I'm looking forward to seeing how this project is a jumping-off point for a continued future."

That future includes a production of "The Mathematics of Love" at San Francisco's Brava Theater Center, which presents the work of often-underrepresented voices, next year.

The Stanford premiere features talent both local, such as Gutierrez, as well as from farther afield. Los Angeles actor Rose Portillo, who's had a long career in both theater and film, is playing the leading role of Peaches.

"How often do we have works for women of color in the American stage?" Gutierrez said. "I'm humbled to be part of the production. As a Chicana myself, it's heaven."

The play is "in many ways a kind of family story as much as it is a hugely historic one. It's Mexican history, ironically in a very intimate setting," Moraga said.

Aside from the cultural relevance, she said she also hoped the story would touch her Stanford students, many of whom have lost grandparents to Alzheimer's disease.

"It's a great loss, but I think this play kind of shows what a great opportunity it is at the same time, to really be able to listen to those last words they have to say as memory leaves them," she said.

Arts & Entertainment Editor Karla Kane can be reached at kkane@paweekly.com.

What: "The Mathematics of Love," presented by Stanford TAPS

Where: Nitery Theater, 551 Serra Mall, Stanford.

When: May 5-7 at 8 p.m.; May 8 at 4 p.m.

Cost: Tickets are $5-$15. For sold-out shows, a wait list is formed at the will-call table in the theater lobby one hour before performances begin.

Info: Go to TAPS.

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