“I walk beneath your pens, and am not what I truly am, but what you’d prefer to imagine me.”
― Juana Inés de la Cruz
It is easy enough to claim that in our country, women have made great strides towards equality. Even now, this debate is still being fiercely waged as the constructs of feminism includes intersectionality of race and sexuality, along with gender. It is at this intersection where women diverge, compounded by privilege, bias and class. In the broadest sense of feminism, women are a collective, seeking reform, rights and a voice. This unified front, at times, does not lend itself to nuance or sensitivity for women confronted with issues beyond their gender.
In the midst of this feminist debate, artistic director Theresa Chavez of About…Productions is reviving the company’s 1999 critically acclaimed “Properties of Silence” at the Carrie Hamilton Theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse, opening on Feb. 28. It’s been a little over 15 years since the play has received a full staging, but the timing couldn’t be better for the company celebrating its 25th anniversary, and for feminism, particularly Chicana feminists who share a very crucial heritage in terms of a historic pioneer credited for being the first feminist of the New World: Sor (sister as in nun) Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695). Part of a trilogy, Chavez and co-writers Rose Portillo and Alan Pulner seized on the opportunity to bring this little known heroine to light.
A biography is necessary in order to fully appreciate the earliest recorded fountainhead of feminism. Sor Juana is a fascinating figure of mythic proportions; born in Mexico, she was a self-taught child prodigy, excelling in music, Latin and mathematics. During her early adolescence, she became a lady in waiting in the court. Regardless of her intellect and creative abilities, Sor Juana had only three options available to her at the time: she could marry, be a prostitute or join a convent. Sor Juana chose the latter. Being a nun gave Sor Juana the privacy and ability to study unfettered by a husband or family. Her brilliance as a poet, scientist and librarian earned her fame, admiration and support from the Viceroy and Vicereine of Spain. It was the Vicereine who published Sor Juana’s poetry, eventually earning the nun in courtly circles, the moniker “The Tenth Muse.”
Her acclaim, however, was short-lived after Sor Juana published a scathing critique under pseudonym, followed up by a letter in her defense, demanding women have access to education. In reaction, the Catholic Church curtailed the poetic genius in her prime. Concurrently, a power shift in Spain left Sor Juana vulnerable and isolated in Mexico City, where not long after she died tending to nuns with the plague, her spirit already broken from the censure of her writings.
In Mexico, Sor Juana’s sagely expressive rendering is on the 200 peso bill with her habit drawn like the raven-haired beauty she was depicted in portraits. Her value in the North Americas is still, shrouded in mystery, obliqueness and is but little known. And, yet, feminism today has much to credit this “Tenth Muse” as being a forerunner for women in the arts and sciences.
And it might be this that writers, Theresa Chavez, Rose Portillo and Alan Pulner were inspired with their dreamlike approach to Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. She is real and current in the play, her experience overlapping with a contemporary woman in Phoenix, Arizona, both fevered by visions. Chavez explains, “There’s two separate worlds and they begin to merge into a dream reality. Some of this is shown through video, utilizing black and white projections by Janice Tanaka inspired by Mexican cinema. It’s like going down a rabbit hole. The women are surprised to find each other in one another’s world.”
For Chavez, reviving “Properties of Silence” is about honoring a historic record both for Sor Juana and Chicana women, but also for About…Productions itself whose work includes outreach programs within the L.A. community. For Portillo, a seasoned veteran actress, playwright and teacher, it is a creative opportunity to shed light on female voices rarely heard. It is also a chance for Portillo to revisit the character Sor Juana as a performer these many years later. An experience she finds richer, “Maturity adds perspective. You can’t help but change.”
Following performances of “Properties of Silence” is a Salon Series, much like Sor Juana who invited great intellects to meet in her private apartment. It is this inclusion of various artists from several varying disciplines following the staged play that gives About…Productions in slang terms, street cred. They walk their talk by showcasing poets such as Eloise Klein Healy,Jessica Piazza andTerry Wolverton in the Salon Series, as well as performance artists like Argentinean, queer actress Karen Anzoatequi.
Additionally, through Portillo’s commitment in working with continuation schools, where students struggle with artistic leanings, disabilities and race, they too will have their voices be heard. This is part and parcel of About….Productions outreach and sensibilities. Tailored to the themes in “Properties of Silence,” local continuation students will meet and interview Chicano poets and create poetry, several of which will have their work spotlighted in the Salon Series. This is the testament of feminism Sor Juana represents as it satisfies the criteria of education, community and platform for voices often silenced by the dominance of white privilege in the West.
A question posed to both Chavez and Portillo was, “What would Juana Inés de la Cruz say about today’s modern challenges?” Both expressed humility in speaking on behalf of such a woman but both also explored the answer. Chavez said, “Part of her would be overjoyed that there are women writers. Women today have more choices in the Western world. She’d be touched her writings have survived and endured.” Portillo adds, “The barrier of age is a myth (regarding the continuation students). Juana understood the importance of education and access. This is what gives rise to voices, specific and invaluable.”
In a dreamscape world, Sister Juana reaches out to our modern-day world and lends her poetic mastery to a dialogue still hotly debated. It is about time About…Productions brings back this literary, historic and obscure genius to the forefront of our imaginations, our yearnings and our theater whose voices are but a facet of every experience.