Wednesday, September 4, 2013


A version of this review appears in today's Portland Observer, here:

Every so often, I'll learn of some historical figure who inspires me so profoundly, I can't quite forgive my education for not introducing me to him or her sooner.  I have the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to thank for introducing me to Sister ("Sor" in Spanish) Juana Inés de la Cruz, a 17th-century nun who is regarded as the first published feminist of the New World.  Sor Juana is famous in Mexico (her face appears on the 200 pesos bill), but has not been the subject of major study in English.  "The Tenth Muse"(playing at OSF through November 2) conveys a sense of Sor Juana's influence and is rich with insights for anyone struggling to find her voice against pressure to silence it.
The play is set twenty years after Sor Juana's death, in a convent outside what is now Mexico City.  In that period of Spanish colonial rule, there existed in New Spain (now Mexico) a rigid caste system in which one's status depended entirely on the quotient of Spanish blood one could claim.  The play centers on three young women who find themselves taking refuge in the convent:  Jesusa, a Mestiza (half-Spanish and half Amerindian) who has come to care for an ailing nun; Tomasita, a timid Nahua Indian who has come to serve in the kitchen; and Manuela, a noblewoman whose arrival is occasioned by circumstances that are not immediately explained.  The three are relegated to the basement storage room and are instructed not to open a locked armoire that sits in the corner.

Oppression and class fuel the story.  It's clear that these young unmarried women have few options in colonial New Spain; convents functioned as a refuge for women who lacked suitable husbands, though hardly a place of comfort.  But the Inquisition lurks as a threat throughout the play; the nuns impose a rigid order that is designed to keep them clear of any conflict with Church authorities.  Further, though the three young women are all refugees in a sense, social hierarchies immediately influence how they assess and treat each other.

But before long, they find the keys to that locked armoire, and it contains the means to their spiritual freedom.  Inside are piles of paper and notebooks containing poems, songs, and plays of Sor Juana, hidden away because the Church considers them dangerous.  The young women, chafing against the rigid social order that confines them, find in these papers a means of escape into a world in which they may playfully imagine themselves differently.  They begin reading one of the plays, aptly named House of Desires, assigning to themselves roles that upset the class order to which the outside world consigns them.  Little do they realize that what seems harmless and joyous to them is exactly what seems dangerous to Church authorities who define what is possible in their world.

The play, commissioned by OSF and enjoying its world premiere run, is the work of Tanya Saracho, a Mexican playwright whose work explores a rich array of Latina voices.  Originally asked to adapt House of Desires for OSF, Saracho ultimately opted to locate this play around a story that explores Sor Juana's influence and also the complicated class differences and gender oppression that characterized women's experience in colonial Mexico.

This history feels important to know about.  Oppression has a way of reverberating through later generations, a phenomenon that is evident in the nuns' varied reactions to Sor Juana's legacy.  The sisters in the play have a range of ideas about the importance of hiding or protecting her words; the Mother Superior for example, is fiercely determined to keep the focus of the Inquisition away from the convent.  Though harsh, her approach makes some sense in light of the dangers the convent faced when Sor Juana came under scrutiny.  After  living a privileged and productive life of letters inside the Convent of San Jeronimo for many years, Sor Juana suddenly became a target for political reasons and was pressured to renounce her previous writings and sell her extensive library, which was one of the largest in the New World.  Other sisters in the play more obviously carry grief over the loss of freedom of thought embodied by Sor Juana, a brilliant thinker and writer at a time when women's education was considered dangerous and unnecessary.  The reverberation of these struggles for the women in the play--along with the insidious mechanics of the racial oppression depicted--suggest how this history continues to ripple into our current experience.

This beautiful play also wrestles soulfully with the human desire for expression and the struggle to find one's voice when expression itself is considered dangerous and threatening to those in power.  One of the sisters especially, Sor Isabel, chafes at the confines into which the sisters have retreated in the wake of the controversy surrounding Sor Juana.  Her agony over the limits of expression allowed to her is treated as a kind of illness, a perversion commonly experienced by those who are awake to the losses associated with enforced silence. 
For me, though, the heart of the play is Tomasita, the Indian woman who has learned to keep silent and watchful.  Beneath her observant exterior lurks hard-won wisdom about her circumstances, and deep longings that she scarcely dares to acknowledge.

If you can make it to Ashland this fall, don't miss the opportunity to sink deeply in this rich history.  You may find, as I did, inspiration and consolation for your current experience.



1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good write-up. We saw it last month. Excellent play.