OPTIMISM blooms through the words of two orphans in "Yemaya's Belly," Signature Theatre's latest production. Lost at sea in a boat bound for America, lacking food, water and a compass, the travelers, Jesus and Maya, spy a strip of land in the distance, and they chant: "Red, white and blue / Sugar and gin / Our story begins." In this coming-of-age story by Quiara Alegria Hudes, an uncertain future is not to be feared, while the past is to be mourned, celebrated and, most of all, remembered.
The America of "Yemaya's Belly" can represent a city, a country or a world on the cusp of change. Most of all, the play is an immigrant's story, the kind the author feels compelled to tell. Hudes explains in an e-mail that she writes to "preserve something for the future before it got lost forever. Before our stories got silenced. Because believe me, not a lot of people are spending money telling stories of women and men from the barrio and their many journeys."
In the fable-like play, set on an unnamed Caribbean island, a young boy named Jesus (Jose Aranda) becomes transfixed by his first taste of Coca-Cola and dreams of going to America. After burying his mother (Tuyet Thi Pham), he leaves his small mountain town and sets sail for the United States with a young girl named Maya (Saskia de Vries). Along the way, in dreams, he is visited by his friends, family and the Santeria goddess of the sea, Yemaya (also played by de Vries), who is credited with giving life to all creatures (they come from her belly, hence the play's title).
"Yemaya's Belly," a work of magical realism, celebrates surprises and enchantment. It depicts rituals, which Hudes describes as "a body and an object, together in a moment of possession."
"All of the rituals in the play are fictional, springing from my imagination as part of the storytelling," Hudes says. "But they are inspired by actual religious ceremonies. In Santeria, someone may become possessed by a power like Yemaya, or by an ancestor or guide. It seems bizarre to some people, but in reality, all of us experience moments of possession, when we lose ourselves to some other force."
Onstage, the possessions happen in rituals with everyday objects, Hudes explains: "A boy gets 'possessed' by his first Coca-Cola. He loves it so much and is so surprised by its flavor, that he practically has an out-of-body experience while drinking it! His uncle [played by Clifton Alphonzo Duncan] gets possessed by a feather -- it becomes an incredibly sexual moment for him where he can feel his past lovers. An elderly man [played by Joseph W. Lane] is possessed by a handful of rice, transported to the many warm meals his wife cooked for him before she died."
Magical realist works also hum with imagery and repetition. Hudes opens and closes the play with the "red, white and blue" rhyme, which Jesus repeats at the beginning of every story he tells. Hudes calls the rhyme "the structural equivalent of saying 'Once upon a time. . . .' " Hudes also gives Jesus a rhyming phrase to end his stories: "Red, white and blue / Sugar and rum / My story's done."
At one point, Jesus hears his mother chant a variation on his story-rhyme: "Blue, green and gold / Yucca and corn / Your memory is born." Hudes says this new rhyme replaces Jesus's old one because "he has started to understand his home, its treasures. Like many of us, we understand something more fully once it is gone. . . . They are the colors Jesus saw every day as he walked the dirt path on papi's farm. The majestic blue of misty mountain skies, the gold of the dirt path and the sun, the green of bamboo and palms lining the road."
This understanding comes to him in a dream, one of several in a play whose narrative blends dreams and reality. Hudes writes in a way that combines the real and the surreal because, she says, "I do not create strong divisions between the worlds of reality and imagination. Instead, I treat them as equals. I am not trying to reproduce real life on the stage. We have enough reality TV every day! I am trying to tell an epic tale. I am trying to make something larger than life."
The world Hudes shows audiences is one of hope, metaphor and magic that, in the end, makes the world seem much more real: "I believe the two young people arrive somewhere at the end. I believe they start the New World. There is tragedy, for they have let go of so many things. But it's all about the future they are about to create. They have traversed the middle passage. They are about to change America forever, merely by stepping foot on its shores."