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Women of Smoke

nytheatre.com review by Amy Lee Pearsall
August 11, 2012

On a tiny stage in a back room at Jimmy’s 43, a woman enters the stage from the house under a blue down-spot, calling to mind a border cantina. The character of a little girl quietly sings in Spanish a song long-forbidden by her family, and the play opens at a funeral during a desert rain storm. It is here that we first encounter Monarch Theater NYC’s Women of Smoke, a one-woman show written and performed by Brandi Bravo, now playing at the New York International Fringe Festival.

Our protagonist and narrator is Isabel, a little girl hovering around the age of seven for most of the story. We meet Isabel’s mother Sonya, determined to secure a better life for her family, and her husband Joe, who sees his wife’s going back to school as an abandonment of her duties as a mother. There is Isabel’s pistol of a paternal great-grandmother, Elfida, and even three great-aunts: good-time girl Adelida, superstitious Nena, and sweet, simple-minded Irene. As directed by Jennifer M. Ortega, Bravo generally makes clear delineations between characters, though there were a couple of moments where I was uncertain whether Joe or Adelida had taken the stage.

Ghosts of the past, both real and imagined, haunt this Mexican-American family living on the border in West Texas, just across the border from Juárez. The women of the clan, in particular, wrestle with the cards they have been dealt – literally and figuratively. During a tarot reading, Nena announces that familial history will repeat itself and Sonya will bear la Virgen de Guadalupe (the saint and hope of the family), una llorna (a runway), and una malinche (a traitor and whore). Meanwhile, Isabel takes lessons in life and poker at the knee of her great-grandmother, Elfida.

The set is bare, save for a nondescript table and a chair off to one side. The lights – limited due to the playing space – serve their purpose, but did not come down at the end of Bravo’s performance on opening night; I assumed this was some sort of light board malfunction. In terms of costume, Bravo dons a black knee-length wrap dress with a deep v-neck, the better to display a simple gold cross on a dainty chain and a dark red rosary. When playing the character of Adelida, legs get crossed and the skirt gets hiked up just enough to offer a peek at black thigh-highs attached to red garters. Sound designer Curtis Curtis brings additional texture to the piece with a low howl of wind, mysterious whispers, and the clicking of billiard balls.

While Bravo’s tale is both engaging and entertaining, I was grateful to receive a copy of the script in my press packet, and not just because it was a little hard to hear over the theatre’s air conditioner. Bravo covers a lot of family history in about an hour, and some characters are only mentioned. It makes for a fascinating story, though I sometimes found myself wishing for a family tree, unclear as to whom this or that person was and whether or not we’d meet them later, and how important they ultimately were to the events at hand.

In spite of this, Bravo brings to life a believable portrait of what it means to grow up on the border, with all its enchantment and menace. This was my first encounter with Bravo’s work, but the story and characters were quite familiar to me. Full disclosure: I grew up in a West Texas town, just across the border from Juárez. In her program notes, Bravo states that she sees this staging of Women of Smoke as another step taken towards the full realization of this particular work. I, for one, look forward to its next incarnation.