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ASU MainStage play bridges cultural mythologies, imagined futures

May 24, 2016

When community leaders talk about imagining futures for Phoenix, a dystopic vision is probably not what they have in mind. But the post-revolutionary landscapes in ASU's MainStage production of “The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea” stand as an omen in a city that is often at the epicenter of social justice debates.

Last year, Arizona State University's award-winning Performance in the Borderlands initiative hosted a successful reading of Cherríe Moraga's “The Hungry Woman” as part of the popular Banned Plays Public Reading Series. This year, the play is coming to ASU’s MainStage, featuring a cast of current ASU theater students under the direction of visiting professor Dora Arreola.

“Medea is a dangerous myth,” said Lance Gharavi, associate professor and assistant director for the School of Film, Dance and Theatre, “… for the depth and ferocity of passion it unleashes. But Moraga’s play makes it more dangerous still. It gives thunderous voice to identities largely ignored or silenced by dominant cultures and institutional structures. It’s a dangerous play; a play of terrible beauty. And a provocative way to open our season.”

The plot of “The Hungry Woman” is a riff on Euripedes’ “Medea,” the famous Greek tragedy in which the leading lady kills her children as an act of revenge against her unfaithful husband. But Moraga’s version of the story also incorporates elements of the Mexican La Llorana legend – she drowns her own children and wanders the Earth for all eternity trying to find them – and the Aztec story of Coatlicue, “Mother of the Gods,” who represents both life and death.

Arreola says that Moraga wanted to make an explicit connection between the mythology of the Greeks and the mythology of the Aztecs.

Erica Ocegueda, a graduate student in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre who serves as both the researcher and choreographer for this production, explained that the play takes a story that is fairly well-known in the Western world and overlays it with cultural references that are maybe less familiar. This allows viewers to see an old story in a whole new light.

This merging of cultural contexts would be enough to bolster many of the important themes in the work (race relations, outsider identity and gender parity, to name a few), but the futuristic setting takes the show to a whole new level.

Scenic designer Douglas Clarke, an alumnus of the School of Film, Dance and Theatre, said his work on the show has been “all about bringing out the Mesoamerican spiritual aspect within a world that is years and years and years from now after a revolution.”

Though “The Hungry Woman” does take place in Phoenix, it’s not the Phoenix we know. In Moraga’s futuristic vision, a revolution divides the U.S. into race-based territories. Medea is forced to leave her homeland, Aztlán, after a counter-revolution bans homosexuals from the region. She moves into exile in Phoenix with her girlfriend, Luna, and son, Chac-Mool, but faces constant threats from her husband, Jasón, who wants to take their son back to Aztlán.

“I’m used to working with very clean lines,” said Clarke. “This time, because of the dangerous world after revolution, there’s more of a grittiness to it.”

And that grittiness comes across in more than just the setting.

“(The play) deals with strong stuff: killing a kid, exile of queer people, race war. I feel like Moraga’s really putting it all on stage,” said Ocegueda.

If that sounds heavy, it’s because it is. But it’s also gripping and relevant, Gharavi says.

“This production is part of our commitment to recognize where we live: in a border state, in the Southwest, in the Americas. It’s part of our commitment to be mindful of the past, even as we confront the present. And that can be a challenge – to ourselves and our audiences,” said Gharavi.

Both Arreola and Oceguenda have worked on “The Hungry Woman” before in different locations, but there’s something special about producing the show here.

“To do this play in the place suggested by the writer is bringing us to another dimension of work,” said Arreola.

This is why Moraga is coming to interact with this particular production of her show firsthand. A series of special events featuring the esteemed writer and activist will accompany the show during the weekend of Oct. 24 and 25. The programming focuses on creating a space for dialogue to address some of the socially and politically charged themes in “The Hungry Woman.”

“I hope the audience will understand that the vision of Moraga is to change society,” said Arreola. “This struggle is not new; it’s rooted in the struggle of indigenous women all over the world. (Moraga) has a vision for a new order, a new society with justice and equality. The audience should leave hoping to change the world.”

Catch one of the seven performances of “The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea” at the Lyceum Theatre, 901 South Forest Mall, on ASU’s Tempe campus: 7:30 p.m., Oct. 17-18; 2 p.m., Oct. 19; 7:30 p.m., Oct. 23-25; 2 p.m., Oct. 26.

Ticket prices are: $16, general; $12, ASU faculty, staff and alumni; $12, senior; $8, student.

ASU Art Museum