On a stormy night in Bellarica, Mexico, two baby girls are born — one into a life of privilege and one into a life of poverty. When the newborns are swapped by a former beauty queen with an insatiable lust for power, the stage is set for two outrageous misfortunes to grow into one remarkable destiny.
Playwright Karen Zacarías has described her new play, Destiny of Desire as “an act of rebellion.” A Mexican-American writer who is based in D.C. but nationally produced, she has often found her work described by critics as “telenovela-esque.” Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey, who plays Fabiola, the former beauty queen in Destiny of Desire, said that Zacarías felt critics didn’t understand what a telenovela actually was. “So she said, `if you think I write a telenovela, let me show you what a telenovela is,’” Gabriela said during a phone interview discussing the play and her role. Also interviewed was Esperanza America, who plays Pilar Castillo, one of the women who was switched at birth.
Destiny of Desire will run from September 11 through October 18 at Arena Stage as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. The timing of staging this play in the nation’s capital is fortuitous. The topic of immigration, particularly focusing on those who have come to America from Latin America, is dominating the presidential campaign and Destiny of Desire’s cast includes many with ethnic roots south of the border. September 15 through October 15 is also Latin American Heritage Month.
“I’m really proud to be a part of this company and this production,” said Gabriela, who is originally from Puerto Rico and now lives in D.C. after spending time on the West Coast and in New York. “I’ve been been aware for my whole life how Latin America and Latinos are perceived in this country and how that has been shifting ever so slowly. Sometimes it seems that the immigration debate is the only time that the American populous, or politicians for that matter, grapple with the presence of Latinos. Latin Americans are a much more complex part of the American experience than people think. We have been here for much longer and have had a dynamic relationship with the United States for a very, very long time.”
According to Gabriela, “telenovelas are probably the most popular form of television in Latin America and many people from all walks of life watch them so it’s kind of democratic in a way.” While the telenovela might be compared to American soap operas, there are some differences besides the fact that the dialogue is in Spanish. A telenovela is a mini series, with story lines wrapped up in a few episodes. With a soap opera, those story lines may go on for years, even decades, like Luke and Laura’s relationship on General Hospital. While soap operas air during the day, telenovelas are shown in the evenings, perhaps another reason these programs find such a diverse audience.
Telenovelas ramp up the melodrama with convoluted story lines that often revolve around a love triangle, a sweeping musical score that reinforces the emotions playing out on screen, and often over-the-top performances. While Destiny of Desire will be performed in English, some of the songs will be sung in Spanish. “I think it’s really exciting because by being in English it gives American audiences the chance to get a better understanding for why telenovelas are as popular as they are and what can be so fun about them,” said Gabriela. “You don’t always take them seriously, but you still get caught up in them, the same way that people get caught up in Downton Abbey.”
Esperanza said she was in Mexico recently with her father, the director José Luis Valenzuela, who was born there. (Esperanza was born in East L.A., as was her mother who is a playwright and actor.) “My dad got hooked on a telenovela,” she said with a laugh. “It was great because we knew we were coming to do this show.” Destiny of Desire has turned into a family affair, with Esperanza’s father directing and her brother, Fidel Gomez, also featured in the cast.
“The beautiful thing about this play is that we’re using the telenovela format, which is heightened reality, to show a reality of class,” said Esperanza. “It’s a story about women defining their destiny. It talks a lot about social and economic power structures and how if you’re lower class you might not have the same opportunities as someone who might have a lot more money than you do.”
Gabriela said that her character, the former beauty queen, Fabiola, sets the main plot in motion by switching the two baby girls at birth. “She is a woman who is trying very hard to maintain her status as a trophy wife, the second wife of the richest man in the town, the casino owner,” Gabriela explained. As her world begins to crumble, she becomes more desperate. “She has her motivations that are true and heartbreaking, but she does terrible things to people.”
Elia Saldaña, Esperanza America and Nicholas Rodriguez – Photo by Tony Powell
Esperanza’s character, Pilar, is actually born into a poor family, but the switch finds her being raised by a wealthy family. “My character wants to be a poet which is not something that her parents can relate to,” said Esperanza. “Her mother is very rich and harsh and the important thing to her is to be beautiful and have class. She doesn’t understand why her daughter wants to be a poet. But when you see who my actual mother is, you can see all the love and tenderness in that character, which would make sense as to why I would want to be a poet.”
While Destiny of Desire takes place in Mexico, there’s no discussion about immigration, although the multi-ethnic cast certainly brings home that message. “I think the beauty is that we’re bringing all of our cultures together to tell this story,” said Esperanza. “The fact that the story can be told in such a beautiful way with talented actors from all around the world tells a lot about where we should be as a country. It’s a testament that there are amazing people from different countries and we’re going to come do beautiful stuff.”
Adds Gabriela: “The Hispanic Heritage Month and the Women’s Voices Theater Festival happening simultaneously are showing us that Washington can be a place where new voices are heard, new voices by women, new voices by minority women, that these voices are powerful and they have very strong and new and fresh perspectives to offer the national dialogue. It’s exciting because all eyes are going to be on Washington during this time and on Arena for taking the lead to put on a show that is funny and passionate.”
Top photo by Tony Powell:
Elia Saldaña and Esperanza America
Destiny of Desire
Written by Karen Zacarías
Directed by José Luis Valenzuela
1101 Sixth Street, SW