Trenton’s Passage Theater’s spring main stage production, “Morir Sonyando,” opening Thursday, May 2, for a three-weekend run, talks to a contemporary problem: families torn apart by imprisonment.
The title means “die dreaming” and is based on the name of a popular Dominican drink — an elixir that does everything from give comfort, evoke childhood memories, and even cure hangovers.
The surface story involves a daughter coming face to face with her mother, recently released from prison. But its soul is an exploration of buried pain and a search for connections.
“The play itself is often like a dream, jumping through time and memories with very little linear connections,” says playwright Erlina Ortiz. “Most people agree the most peaceful way for one to die would be in your sleep, and that concept is considered in the play.”
In prior interviews, notes, and direct communication, Ortiz readily talks about the play, her work, and her life.
“‘Morir Sonyando’ is first and foremost a play about family,” says the American playwright of Dominican heritage. “A mother and her two children are dealing with the repercussions of an event that took place many years ago. That being mom killing dad, an abusive partner. The ‘issue’ of the play is the cycle of domestic violence, but ultimately it is about how this family finds a way to make it out of that cycle.”
Ortiz says the spark to write the play came when she was at Temple University and participating in a sorority that performed community service. “Our chapter philanthropy was domestic violence. During that time the issue became very important to me and I learned a lot. I also became aware of a documentary called ‘Sin by Silence,’ which is about women in prison for killing abusive partners. Hearing these women’s stories really sparked something in me.”
As the artistic director of Philadelphia’s Power Street Theater Company, the Reading, Pennsylvania, raised Ortiz says she is interested in “giving people voices who don’t have one, and I couldn’t think of anyone who’s had their voice stripped away more desperately than an incarcerated woman.”
She says presenting current social situations on the stage engages new audiences into the artistic discussion and creates awareness. “Many of (the Latino audience members) are seeing a play for the first time, and our talk-backs are often bilingual. Even for those who have seen plays before, they’ve never seen their own people on a stage, or heard their own language. The reactions are so visceral and real.”
The effect is also on the artists. “For those people from the theater community who do come and support, they are often transformed and transfixed by the community around them in the audience that they maybe never knew existed.”
The playwright shares a similar experience about theater. “Theater was non-existent to me growing up. My mother only began to know about it and enjoy it when I started doing plays in middle school on a whim because I wanted to be a singer like Mexican-American superstar Selena.
“Even then most of my family thought ‘theater’ was musicals because that’s all we really did in my public school. But story-telling is a big part of my memories in the Dominican Republic. Over there you only have electricity half the day. My fondest memories are when the lights would go out and everyone would gather outside with a little fire and tell ‘chistes’ or funny stories. I used to think my mom didn’t know anything about performance, but now as I’m growing up I listen to her tell stories sometimes, and she is a natural dramatic performer. It’s in our blood.”
She may also say the blood drove her to production and writing. “When I was a little girl I would staple pieces of paper together and make little books. When I was in middle school I would come home from school every day and plop in front of our family computer and commandeer it for the whole night while I worked on my ‘novel.’ I still have that book I wrote and you know what, it is not that bad. My secret passion however had always been performing. I wanted to perform. Stage, film, TV, it didn’t matter. I loved assuming characters and getting that possessed feeling.”
Revealing more about her own story, Ortiz says, “My father was already an American citizen when he married my mother in the Dominican Republic. He came when he was 16, started working in kitchens, and now he’s been a chef for pretty much his whole life. My mother was always very education focused. My grandmother instilled that in all her children. So when my mother married my father, he brought her to the U.S. They both worked, but my mom also started working on her degree. Of course it was for the opportunity. That is the legend of the U.S, of Nueva York [New York], that when you come here you will be able to work, study, make a living, and provide something better for your children. We ended up in Reading because it was a dying town being revived by its Latinx population. There were a lot of diners where my dad could work, and my mom has been working in the same bank there now for 20 years.”
She adds she was four years old when she came to the United States.”It wasn’t planned for me to be born (in the Dominican Republic), but circumstances led to that happening, and then it took four years to convince the government that my parents were my parents.”
She says when she decided to continue to write and attend college she focused on Temple University in Philadelphia. “It was the only school I applied for and it met a few important criteria for me: multidisciplinary program (I knew I needed to be a well-rounded artist and not just an actor), in a big city with lots of theater going on, and relatively affordable compared to my other options.”
While her choice to persue theater didn’t surprise her parents, she says it did cause them concern. “My mom was worried though because she just couldn’t understand how I would ever make a living. She had reason to worry of course. This is a long game towards financial stability, which I have not reached. But I am happier being poor and pursuing my art than being rich and bored with myself. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to make money, though.
“There is always this guilt when you are the child of immigrants that you are not doing enough. That your parents sacrificed so much for you to be here how dare you do anything but excel and pay them back? Anyway, my parents love my shows. My mom comes to everything even if she doesn’t always agree with the premise or subject matter, and she shares my stuff on Facebook so I think she’s okay with the path I’ve taken. Hopefully one day I can help her retire and get her her dream kitchen.”
Ortiz says she generally had positive experiences at Temple, yet she also “soon felt the sting of exclusion in my theater department. At the most diverse university in the country I was one of three Latinas in the department, and I soon realized that there was very little opportunity for me to showcase my talent on a Temple stage. The shows were either always an almost all-white cast, or there would be the one ‘black show,’ which I of course wasn’t right for either. I was stuck, and I realized as soon as I started seeing more shows in the city that the problem was not limited to my university.
“Around this same time I was taking a playwriting course. I found a strange power in writing my own characters. It was like acting, getting possessed by these voices that demanded to speak through me. It was more fun even because I wasn’t limited to one character. I got to be all the characters.”
She says that meanwhile she was approached by Power Street founder Gabriela Sanchez, who told her she was starting a multicultural theater company. “So I joined, and I started writing the characters that I had so longed to see on stage. I started writing the stories that I thought mattered to my people, and the rest is ‘herstory.’”
“Morir Sonyando” is a result of that longing. “I wrote this because I wanted to understand the complexities of living in and surviving domestic violence because I felt like it was not a story I had heard told in a way that could resonate with my community. I think the most important thing about this play is breaking the silence of domestic violence. It coincides with #metoo in a way. The first time I saw this play go up with my company Power Street Theater five years ago, I was floored by the amount of people in our talk-backs that said something like this happened to them too. ‘My sister’s in jail for killing her boyfriend.’ ‘My dad was abusive to my mom.’ ‘I was in a relationship where I kept a knife beneath my pillow.’ I mean it was just life-altering. I realized the importance of telling difficult stories where people see their truth reflected, but also how we can heal and move forward from the trauma.”
Morir Sonyando, Passage Theater Company, Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street, Trenton. Opens Thursday, May 2. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. (except May 4) through May 19. $13 to $38. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org.