Editor’s Note: This review has content that may be triggering for some readers.
Ever get tired of the same cliché fairy tales where the girl falls in love with the guy and they live happily ever after?
Time to taste a bit of a reality check when it comes to this true coming-of-age story.
“A Shero’s Journey Or What Anacaona and Yemayá Taught Me” is a captivating play written by Guadalís Del Carmen and directed by Yasmine Jahanmir that was held at the University of Nevada, Reno in the Redfield Proscenium Theatre.
Spoiler alert, this story isn’t all about the boy.
Zoila, a young girl of Afro-Latinx descent, who has always gone along with the lessons her surroundings had taught her, discovers there is more to the world than what she grew up learning.
In the opening scene, the audience sees a moment where Zoila, played by Kennedy Gaskins, enjoys a moment of peace as she dances across the stage to a song near and dear to her heritage.
Zoila is simply a girl who loves to dance, and she is free from the judgment because of her gender and culture.
Soon after, the audience is introduced to Zoila’s mother, Mamá Colón, who is played by Maya Macias, and her aunt, or tía, played by Dejiah Cobb. Zoila’s mother lives a trapped life with an abusive husband, while Zoila’s tía lives freely in the household as an unmarried woman.
Tía brings a sense of comic relief to the heavy topics of discussion. Zoila’s mother is sick, but she has yet to tell her daughter about the sickness overtaking her. Zoila’s tía not only takes care of her sister, but she finds a way to keep her sister happy during her struggles by reminding her of stories about their “abuela”, the Spanish word for grandmother, and making sassy comments that lets the audience soak in powerful female energy.
When Zoila’s father is introduced, it seems the audience takes an immediate dislike to him. Papá Colón, who is played by Anthony Mendoza, is perceived as an overbearing husband and father whose blatant misogyny is frustrating to say the least. He preaches about going to church, tries to force Zoila into a marriage to a white man and abuses his wife and daughter when they fall out of line.
Zoila loves her mother with all of her heart and deep down, she loves her father too. She just doesn’t understand why he would want to force her into marriage with a man she does not love, but she cannot say no. When she encounters an old friend she had grown up with, it seems Zoila’s view on love and marriage has completely shifted.
Amor, played by Ajani Jones, is a boy down the street who moved to the city at a young age. With his mom sick with cancer, Amor struggles with the fact that he could lose a piece of his family to the rotten disease. However, his character masks the fear and grief with a humorous persona as he engages with Zoila in a flirty manner.
After the encounter with Zoila, the audience sees an immediate parallel between the sweet persona of Amor and the rough encounter she has with a white man on her way home from the store. The director made a powerful move by adding this scene to the play, showing the harsh realities of what it is like for a woman to simply walk home alone.
The white man, known as Wise Guy, is played by Jeremy Scott Uithoven. His character is anything but likable. The crude language he uses when he speaks to Zoila is sickening. When he starts to grope her and stereotype her as “f–kable” because of his perception of women in her culture, all the watchers were sitting on the edge of their seats, ready to pounce on the spawn of evil.
This was the beginning of valuable lessons to learn about Zoila. Instances like these are the reason why she subconsciously thinks down on her culture. The way that people make her feel for being a woman and person of color is the reason this story is happening in the first place. Watching it unfold on stage with just one story, allows the audience to open their eyes to the possibility of situations like these happening in real time. It captures the situation beautifully.
Soon after the troubling events though, Zoila finds true love. Amor and Zoila escape the realities of their lives and find themselves in a better place together. They sit in nature and soak in the sun, discussing the topics of what their children would look like and where they could go if they could be together. The intense chemistry between the actor and actress couldn’t have been more spot on.
Her father always seems to stand in the way though. When he discovers of their secret love affair, Papá Colón immediately blames his wife for allowing Zoila to be with Amor.
“You’re too emotional,” he spits at his wife in the conversation about her daughter’s love affair, before claiming to never have loved Mamá Colón in the first place.
When Tía claims to know Amor and his mother, explaining that they are the same skin color as her, Zoila’s father turns red with anger.
“There will be no Black children in this house!” he yells, infuriated at his wife and her sister, a line so encapsulated in racism, that it will continue to sit in the minds of the audience as the play unfolds.
He then beats his wife with a whip to punish her for letting their daughter run wild.
After this point in the play, things become dark fast. Mamá Colón sits her daughter down and tells her the truth of why she was teaching her recipes and giving her life lessons so quickly. Zoila’s mother is dying.
Instead of saying the sickness for the audience to hear, the mother’s voice is overtaken by the dramatic sound effects and red lighting. This is a shifting moment in Zoila’s life.
Immediately after the emotional moment, a casket is brought to the center of the stage. We watch as all of the family members say goodbye to the loved Mamá Colón. There was not a dry eye in the theater as we watched Zoila’s entire world fall apart before her.
We flash to a scene where Zoila’s father is drinking himself into oblivion, feeling guilty for not being a proper father, letting Zoila roam free and make herself the town “whore” as he calls her. He lost the marriage to the rich white man she was arranged to be with, and lost his wife to a cancer he knew nothing about. He saw himself as a failure.
Zoila runs away with Amor, afraid of getting more beaten by her father in her mother’s absence. The two engage in a romantic evening where they lose themselves in one another and engage in an explicit night of love in the wild. The audience seemed to enjoy the intense kisses of joy as the two can’t seem to get enough of each other.
Just before the end of the first act, Amor goes missing, with only his lamp remaining next to the sleeping body of Zoila. The audience is on the edge of their seats, but of course, a break comes before everyone can see what happens next.
After a brief intermission, act two begins with a collection of shouting voices about Zoila. The voices attack her “wild” hair, make fun of her culture and even insult her experience as a woman.
When Zoila awakens, she is met with two of her ancestors: Anacaona, played by Maya Macias, and Yemayá, played by Dejiah Cobb.
The women wear elegant attire full of colors and beautiful designs. Both are strong independent women that will prove to be wonderful influences on Zoila. When they embark on a journey to find Zoila’s “true Amor”, Zoila walks the path of stories of her heritage and ancestry.
The women help her embrace her hair, tell stories of their time on earth when the “white men” tried to take over their territory and destroy their culture.
Two women dressed in colorful blue and orange two-piece dresses, take the stage with paint on their face and their hair in braids. They dance to the mood of Anacaona and Yemayá’s stories to clearly represent the visual of the story. The two dancing women are played by Isis Oliver and Guadalupe Alvarez.
Each of the ancestors have two passionate monologues about their experiences. Anacaona talks about a battle where the white men destroyed her home for gold, while Yemayá cries for the her lost children who were taken over sea in poor conditions, slept row-to-row and held in chains before being forced into slavery.
The recognition of past events through each of these women’s cultural experiences is an eye-opener. The audience was full of teary eyes as everyone looked into the emotional depth of each of these characters’ experiences.
When it seems there is no hope to help Zoila find self-love, Sssssnake, played by Ajani Jones, takes advantage of Zoila’s vulnerable position and tries to get her to turn to the dark side to find her precious Amor.
Zoila passes that test by denying “selling” her body parts to find her true love. However, the White Jesús—played by Jeremy Scott Uithoven—captures her two ancestors, pushing the blame on them and reminding Zoila that she does not belong with her culture and that she must accept him as her savior instead. He tells her that her father “knows what’s best,” for her and that he must listen to her. It is a line that has been used in a lot of other plays to invoke a change and show women that they can find their own ways without any adult figure telling them how to do it.
When Zoila is concerned for the women and feels lost because all she’d ever known was this religion, she hits a new rock-bottom for herself. She starts questioning everything she’s ever known and wishes to find any way to end her suffering.
“I’m tired of everyone telling me what to do, who to be … I want to love myself, but I don’t know how,” Zoila screams as she wishes to be free from the shackles of shame she’d known her whole life. The moment is extremely powerful.
The voice in her head encourages her to look into her happiest moments, where she realizes dancing was the freedom she’d always wanted.
The play comes full circle as Zoila dances and finally embraces the love she has for her hair, her heritage, her gender and herself.
After her short monologue, Zoila finishes the scene with a relieved sigh and a small whisper, “I found it.”
The lights go dark and the audience gets a moment of clarity to realize, this was the true “Amor” that the ancestors were referring to.
A few other loose ends get tied up within the second act, including Zoila’s pathway to rekindle things with her father. In the end, the most important lesson Zoila learned was to accept her past and love herself in the future, regardless of what anyone else has to say.
“I am here … I am love … love is me,” she says, making the audience shed a few more happy tears for the beautiful moment.
Soon after, the actors and actresses come out to take their bow and join the crowd, dancing to the catchy songs as the audience claps for the incredible performances they gave.
It is a magical end to a lovely evening at the opening night of “A Shero’s Journey”.
Jaedyn Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jaedyn_young3.