Review: Isaac Gómez’s play at Undermain Theatre focuses on killings of women in Juárez
Isaac Gómez’s one-woman play "The Way She Spoke," now in production at Undermain Theatre in Deep Ellum, is built around interviews Gómez conducted in Juárez, Mexico, with families of brutally murdered women and girls who began disappearing or turning up dead in the 1990s.
Were they killed by rival drug gangs who treated them like pawns? The police? A corrupt system that devalues women? All of the above, is the playwright’s answer.
But Gómez, who uses they/them pronouns, also implicates themself and the audience through the use of a meta-theatrical device that’s brilliant in its simplicity.
The only character onstage is “The Actress,” performed with naturalistic force by Gigi Cervantes, last seen in Kitchen Dog Theater’s political horror thriller "Man Cave." The Actress is a friend of the playwright, who’s asked her to read the play to them. In this way, Gómez becomes a second but invisible character. Undermain has left an empty chair in the audience to represent the playwright.
The script includes the playwright’s sometimes harrowing account of their investigative trip to Juárez — you can almost smell the paranoia — and the words of the devastated mothers and other relatives Gómez talked to.
The playwright is intimately familiar with Juárez, sister city of his hometown El Paso just across the border.
With the conceit that the Actress is encountering the script for the first time, the play includes her increasingly agitated reactions to what she’s reading aloud.
At the end of the play, she recites a list of victims’ names until she can’t stand it anymore. It makes her angry at the playwright, implying that this litany may be exploitative.
The methodical murder of women and girls is not just a Mexican problem: It’s happening worldwide, the flustered Actress offers in the play’s closing moments.
"The Way She Spoke," subtitled "A Docu-Mythologia," opens with the Actress meeting with Gómez after a frustrating audition. The three white guys at the audition, she says while changing clothes, believed she could only play maids and putas.
Undermain’s designers — Scott Osborne on set and props, sound by Paul Semrad and lighting by Steve Woods — create a subtle atmosphere that complements Gómez’s descriptions of the streets, people and moods of Juárez.
Blake Hackler, known for his sensitive attention to detail, directs with a sure hand.
Street sounds creep in, and the imposing columns in Undermain’s basement space, once considered an impediment, have rarely been used better, in this case for graffiti and fading corporate logos.
Cervantes frequently moves around the stage, sitting at first in a chair at a table, later on a wood box and then standing behind a lectern on which the script is propped.
A tire, barrels and concrete blocks are lined up along a black backdrop, which toward the end of the play is revealed to be a scrim. Behind it are haunting symbols of the murders you won’t be able to get out of your mind.
Details: Through June 18 at Undermain Theatre, 3200 Main St. $20-$30. undermain.org.