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article imageOp-Ed: Latina playwright's work is compared to that of Steinbeck Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Mar 22, 2017 in Lifestyle
Oakland - Playwright Lisa Ramirez brings to the Bay Area a deeply examined and richly textured work. It is one that speaks to our times. Yet as some critics point out, it also gives witness to the universal and the timeless.
'TO THE BONE' is Ramirez' most powerful stage play, to date, that is based upon interviews with actual poultry-factory workers in upstate New York. The play was well received in 2014 at the Off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City. Not to be confused with the 2017 movie of the same name, Ramirez' play was written before the movie - Cherry Lane Theatre confirmed that fact.
Now, Ramirez and Ubuntu Theater Project of Oakland are pleased to announce that her play will make its West Coast debut at the Ubuntu Theater venue in Oakland.
Ubuntu's director for the play, Michael Socrates Moran said. "In an effort to honor the notion 'ubuntu,' which most closely translates to, 'I am because we are,' we strive to create theater that reveals the sometimes invisible ways we are inextricably bound. Lisa's play not only illuminates the humanity and the complex circumstances of those living in the shadows, he said. But, it reveals what the cost-entrenched oppression has placed upon a community as they struggle for justice and seek freedom. 'TO THE BONE' speaks to a central socio-political issue of our time and unearths the humanity of these individuals... capturing their stories that are too often not provided the opportunity to share."
This reporter was able to reach Ramirez and she talked about the play and the journey the experience has been for her and the cast/crew at Ubuntu, especially now as it will be making its West Coast debut this coming April 1. I asked her a few questions.
I see from the script and what critics have said, you based your play on the experiences of actual workers in a chicken/poultry-food production line. Besides being workers, undocumented, etc. what was the one or two threads they all shared in common, that stuck out in your mind the most?
"That they were women," said Ramirez, "that their families were everything. That no matter how difficult their lot was, that their faith was strong. Humor was used to hold painful realities at bay."
Your work has been compared to California author John Steinbeck. What do you share in common with his work, especially his understanding of the working poor? And, what do you see in your work that is not like Steinbeck or anyone else?
"I think Steinbeck made the working class/underdog the 'stars' in his stories," she said. "And, he gave us an inside view to communities that were ignored or invisible. His work shows both great humor and tragedy in the same breath. HUMANITY is the word I think of... when I think of Steinbeck. I am honored that my work is compared to his."
Checking in with the Cherry Lane Theatre, the off-Broadway venue in New York City where Ramirez' play officially made its premier back in 2014, co-producing artistic director at Cherry Lane, Janio Marrero confirmed that "the play opened to a full-house capacity." Yet when I asked if he thought 'TO THE BONE' was comparable to Steinbeck's 'Grapes of Wrath' he said. "Only in that it deals with the subject of migrant workers. But I think, that's a leap to make that comparison. Lisa's play stands alone, on its own."
 TO THE BONE  premiered at the off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theatre of New York City  in 2014. Directed ...
"TO THE BONE" premiered at the off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theatre of New York City, in 2014. Directed by Lisa Peterson, the play featuring: Dan Domingues, Liza Fernandez, Annie Henk, Paola Lázaro-Muñoz, Lisa Ramirez, Gerardo Rodriguez, Xochitl Romero, and Haynes Thigpen.
Courtesy of Cherry lane Theatre, NYC
He noted that as the production manager for 'TO THE BONE' premiere back in 2014, "what is remarkable about Lisa's work is that... she was able to take the interviews of these women and weave it into a play. So, that their voices become one voice, speaking artistically."
Getting back to Ramirez and how she views the play and its detail, she said, "I would say that my work differs in that most of my protagonists are female... I also try to shine light on communities that are largely 'invisible' in theatre. In addition, I try to use an element of poetic movement/dance in all of my work. I love to explore the poetry/movement in the everyday or mundane tasks that most would consider tedious or 'boring."
Now that the Trump Administration has made routine deportation a reality in the United States, I had to ask Ramirez, What is the most pressing issue of migrant/undocumented workers today? As you see it and understand it? And, what is it about your play that is universal and perhaps timeless?
"I think that undocumented workers contribute more to the U.S. than they take away. They are consumers, workers and that means most of them are tax payers," she said. "I guess my play is universal in that it could be performed in any country, with any group that had to migrate out of a need to survive. It's a survival story. "Everyone knows the story of oppression/survival and then fighting for your family/dignity against all odds. Whether we have experienced it ourselves or heard stories about our ancestors, most of us were all immigrants at some point, she said. Or, our families were immigrants. This story is not new."
At preparations and rehearsals for her play  TO THE BONE  at Ubuntu Theater  seen here with cast -me...
At preparations and rehearsals for her play "TO THE BONE" at Ubuntu Theater, seen here with cast -member Juliana Aiden, on the left is playwright Lisa Ramirez. Her play "TO THE BONE (not to be confused with the 2017 movie) will be making its West Coast debut on April 1 at the Ubuntu Theater Project in Oakland, CA.
Mia Romero, courtesy of production crew of TO THE BONE
Marrero agreed as he told this reporter by phone from the Cherry Lane Theatre offices in NYC. "The things that Lisa's place speaks of, its all true. It happened to these women (of that poultry production plant), it's happening as we speak and it will continue to happen," he said. "What is tragic (about the subject of migrant workers/undocumented workers) is that it is neglected, ignored. Lisa's play also reveals the hypocrisy of our American 'Free-market' capitalistic system. Not to pay them a living wage is hypocrisy as they are trapped in a vicious cycle. They can't afford to leave their low-paying job, the are always vulnerable to deportation and to go back to their home country which is in turmoil is often more of a hardship in and of itself, than to stay."
Marrero then pointed out, "And this idea that migrant workers are 'taking our jobs' is a myth. Studies have shown; it has been proven many times that present-day farming and agriculture needs the migrant worker. Lisa's play," said Marrero, "is like a mirror held up to our society."
I then asked Ramirez. If you wanted an audience to understand one thing and walk away from your play with just one message, one understanding, what would you want that to be?
Without hesitation she said, "That we are not so different!"
Because the subject is unpleasant and difficult to hear about, I had to ask. What has been the most difficult thing about writing and putting together this play (the obstacles)? And, what has been the most rewarding — (the joys?)
"The most difficult thing was hearing the real life, true stories from the women in Sullivan County, NY. The abuses and the injustices," she said. "And then, to take it to create a play that the public would be able to 'digest.' But, as in all of my work, I use the old Harold Clurman line. 'The truth is like castor oil. It's difficult to take and hard to swallow, so we get them to laugh and while their mouths are open, we pour a little in.'" she said. Clurman was an established theater director, critic and founder of the Group Theater of New York City. He also authored books on theater and directing, including a biography on Ibsen.
Marrero agreed as he said, "It is not so much that people don't care; it is that we don't care enough. Migrant workers - undocumented workers are labeled as 'Illegal' to keep them in shackles. Again, the vicious cycle of hypocrisy with our current ideas of American capitalism." He also said, "it is never enough to give them a voice. What is also amazing about Lisa's play is that this is a voice; a voice of some very strong — courageous women trying to only to survive and earn a living." He recommended that everyone should see the play. "It's a great production with heart, soul and hope!"
Commenting further on the importance of humor to tell a story amid hardship, Ramirez said. I always use humor as a way into my work. Humor invites the audience in rather than preaches to them. The most rewarding aspects of the play have been: to have five Latina actresses onstage at the same time in leading roles; to have people stand up crying and cheering at the curtain call; to have my work produced at the Cherry Lane Theatre in NYC. And, most powerful of all for Ramirez as she said, "to come back to my hometown of Oakland after living in NYC for 17 years. Sharing this story with my Bay Area 'family' at the Ubuntu Theater Project is now my new Theatrical home and I am thrilled to be back," she said. To learn more about the production of 'TO THE BONE' and its West Coast debut visit the Ubuntu Theater Project website.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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