BWW Interview: Maria-Christina Oliveras Talks KISS MY AZTEC!, the Importance of LatinX Stories and Our World "Getting Browner"
A new musical about Latin history, co-written by John Leguizamo? You've got my attention, my friend. Making its world premiere at Berkeley Rep, the hilariously named Kiss My Aztec! seems to have all the makings of a hit.
In his review for BroadwayWorld, Steve Murray writes that Leguizamo "reaches for the stars with his vigorously crafted lunacy of re-imagined Aztec history that somehow manages to entertain wildly, educate smartly and create pure theatre magic."
To get the skinny on this exciting new work, we caught up with the always-effervescent Maria-Christina Oliveras.
A regular face on the New York and regional stage, as well as the large and small screen, Oliveras has been involved in the developmental process since 2014.
Our friendly neighborhood "FiliNuyoRican" took the time to break it down for us in the following exclusive interview.
Tell me about your initial involvement in the piece. I know you've been a part of it since the very early stages. What initially drew you to the project?
I first started with the project at the Atlantic Theater Company's Latino Mixfest in June 2014. I didn't know much about it. All I knew was John Leguizamo had written a new musical called Pain in the A**** (subsequently, Pain in the Aztec!, and now, Kiss My Aztec!). That's all I needed to know.
I had always been a huge fan of John's and as a child of the 90's, grew up following his career: Benny Blanco; House of Buggin'; Chi Chi; Tybalt; Luigi. Here was this LatinX theatre cat who looked and sounded like my family, created and produced his own work, and had a thriving career in Hollywood. I jumped at the opportunity to collaborate with him.
Plus, I am a new works' junkie. There is nothing like "brain-childing" a piece from its inception.
And now here you are five years later. What has kept you coming back to this show over the years?
John. [Director and co-author] Tony Taccone. The beautiful wide-ranging musical landscape that Ben, David and John have created. The ability to work on a LatinX piece with fellow artists of color. The challenge of the comedy. Tthe delicious mash up of Elizabethan language and street talk. The agony and ecstasy of bold new work- there is nothing like the resounding silence or cacophonous laughter or audible eye-rolling or gradations of shade, when trying out new material for the first time. The humor and silliness of the piece coupled with our intentionality to revisit history and reclaim our place in the narrative.
Also, the world of the play is an addictive playground. It is epic, sprawling, zany, vulgar, lowbrow and highbrow and demands balls-to-the wall, no holds barred commitment. It is such a gift to be able to take up space unapologetically, boldly, and brashly, and run with all impulses, no matter how seemingly "dumb" or silly or "dirty." Everyone on the team is such a generous collaborator. All our input has been welcome, and they have really mined and honored everyone's individual strengths and quirks. I have never felt more fearlessly free to fail and fail better.
Tell me about how you've seen the work develop and change during your involvement.
It has changed quite a bit since 2014, and it continues to evolve. There are a couple of OG's who have held it down since the first reading at Pregones Theater Company: Joel Perez, who started in the role of Fernando and is now playing Pepe, Chad Carstarpen and Jesus Martinez. I joined the crew for the second incarnation.
It was never intended to be a musical. When we did it at the Atlantic, it was very much a play with some songs, but no formal music. At the time, I was playing the role of Pilar, whose big number is called "Dark Meat." John said to sing it a la "Horses" by Patti Smith, so the music director of the workshop, Desmar Guevara, and I riffed and improvised on that. The piece eventually seemed to demand more music, and Ben and David joined the team as composer and lyricist in September 2014, shortly after the Atlantic.
Since then, the show has undergone major transformations and shifts, as we discover and learn what the piece is. Countless lines and numbers have come and gone and returned and been re-shifted-lots of delicious experimenting and trial and "error." I'm excited to see how the show evolves and grows, and the changes that will be implemented.
As we move forward, we continue to clarify the story; mine the culture clash between Aztec natives and Spanish colonizers; lean into the humor, silliness and joy of the piece, while still acknowledging the danger and very dark roots of it-colonization and oppression of a people; subversively inspire action and change toward a society that is inclusive and honors all of our stories, without falling into sentimentality or "didacticism."
Talk to me a little bit about the role you play and how it fits into the overall story.
The play is set in 1560 in what is now Mexico. The Spanish conquistadors, or "White People on Boats," as we refer to them in our opening number, have come to claim the Aztecs' land as their own and erase the indigenous culture, and they have now built a citadel.
Mayhem and hijinks abound, as a Prophecy is fulfilled, and our "unlikely" heroes, Pepe and Colombina, lead the Aztecs [in a quest for] victory. Along the way, we meet a motley crew of characters.
I play Tolima, an Aztec witch who serves as a rebel spy in the Spanish Court. I masquerade as a servant in order to steal a Crystal back from the Royal Family. Problem is, Tolima's powers have waned. Throughout the play, we see her desperate, hilarious attempts at casting spells and conjuring and re-igniting her magic. We are exploring the question of why she has lost her powers, but ultimately her magic is restored.
I love playing her. She is a powerful witch, sorcerer, magician, shaman, earth mother, protector of the ancestors. She's a clown-big, brash, bold, funny, subversive, wily, and her ballistic high stakes desperation to serve the cause and save the Aztecs is pure joy. Plus, I get to sing and dance and rap!
How would you describe the show? Is it a traditionally structured musical? A satire? Social commentary?
A "Non-Traditional Epic Musical Comedy with Teeth." It is brash, bold, hilarious and vulgar. An Aztec take or retake of history in the vein of Spamalot or Book of Mormon. We are not aiming for historical accuracy. And we are "equal opportunity offenders."
It's a fun period piece, and we aim to make it funny and accessible. That said, the guts and "reality" of this romp are pretty dark, and the issues that it taps into are still as resonant in 2019 as they were in 1560: colonization, oppression of a people by a wealthy white elitist patriarchy, misogyny, genocide, inequity and discrimination of anything deemed "other." The parallels are overwhelming, as history continues to repeat itself.
It is particularly poignant with the border crisis at this moment, and all the issues surrounding immigration. And we want to address these issues and the blood of the past and our ancestors, with as much humor and hope and light as possible-singing, dancing, ENTERTAINING LatinX style!
We end the show with a very hopeful number, "The World is Getting Browner," which is an inclusionary celebration of where we can go and hopefully where we are headed.
Talk to me some more about the original score. My understanding it that touches on or pays homage to a wide variety of styles and eras.
Yes and it is my JAM!!!! It is a Mixtape of sorts-a pastiche of musical styles and genres embracing rap, hip-hop, jazz, funk, gospel, more traditional musical theater, reggaetón and all forms of Latin music-merengue, salsa, cumbia and freestyle.
Some of the influences on the show are Parliament Funk-a-delic, Mary J. Blige, Wyclef, Daddy Yankee, Joe Cuba, la Sonora Matanacera and Ruben Blades. Fun Fact: Ruben Blades played Rodrigo in the very first reading of Pain in the Aztec!
How has the initial audience response been? The reviews have been very positive! Are you getting a lot of Latin audience members, and how has their particular reaction occurred to you? Having worked at Berkeley Rep in the past, what do you love about it as a place to do theatre?
The audiences here have been wonderful. Lots of "woke" folks, very receptive and supportive, which I also found when we developed Amelie here in 2016. Some folks just can't get behind the humor. If you're hyper-sensitive or easily offended, this [might not be] the show for you.
As far as diversity, the audiences have [so far] been pretty homogeneous. But we've definitely seen more people of color as the run has gone on, and word of mouth is spreading. That said, the LatinX community who have come, seem to love it. They get different nuances of the humor, and particularly the Spanish jokes.
As Tolima, I get to engage with the audience, and it is truly overwhelming to look out into the house and see LatinX folks smiling ear to ear seeing themselves onstage, honoring who they are and their stories. It affirms for me how important it is to share our stories and for us to be seen onstage, so that "other" people are "seen" and acknowledged and inspired and validated and encouraged to embrace their ancestors and roots, and reclaim their place in history and redefine the narrative moving forward.
And Berkeley Rep is the best place to develop new work. The staff and crew, top to bottom, are incomparable and it's been great to be back. During his tenure, I think Tony (and Susie Medak) have really cultivated an appetite for new work and love of process and development in the audiences and staff. We felt supported at every turn, and for me, Berkeley Rep truly feels like an artistic home.
We've spoken previously, and more extensively, about your half-Asian (Filipina) background... but you are also Puerto Rican. How strong was the Latin influence on your upbringing and adult life? And how does this show speak to you as a Latinx performer and human being?
I am indeed First-Generation "FiliNuyoRican," or Puerto Pinoy. My mom is from Baguio City in the Philippines, and my dad is from Guayanilla, Puerto Rico.
On my Puerto Rican side, my grandmother was a 4'9" Taino (indigenous native), and my grandfather was a 6'2" Castilian. This offers its own interesting narrative of another type of Spanish conquest.
Abuela and Abuelo Montalvo-Oliveras:
Growing up in the Bronx in the 90's, the Latin influence was huge, and I also had more access to my Puerto Rican side. Many of my father's family migrated here, so I was immersed in Spanish. Family gatherings were arroz con gandules, pernil, Tito Puente, Luis Miguel, Menudo, chess, dóminos, Bacardi, makeshift dance floors in the basement with a disco ball to boot, Coco Rico and spam/olives/salchichas, plátanos, coquito, and pasteles. We also spent many holidays and summers in Puerto Rico, where I got to swipe quenepas, mangos and coconuts from the trees in the backyard. One Epiphany (our Christmas), I even scored a stuffed Fievel from the Three Kings as they paraded through Ponce.
This show speaks to me, not only as a LatinX performer, but also mirrors my own struggles with integration. I grew up thinking I needed to submerge my identity to "fit in" to the more exclusionary, predominantly white worlds I became privy to. The more I achieved my parents' American Dream for traditional forms of "success," the more I saw less of me, literally. I had amazing mentors and role models, but rarely were they people of color.
In the professional world, the landscape is still pretty homogenous. It's getting better, and it is very gratifying to see more of "me" represented onstage and off. But there is a lot of work still to be done. That is why it's so important to get out there, to do [this] work and put out [this] content.
From a global or cultural standpoint, tell me why this is an important story to be telling right now. For someone with no knowledge of the work or the writers, why should they spend their evening with Kiss My Aztec!?
It's a romp. It's funny and entertaining. It spins history on its head. It fuses language in an interesting way. The music is fantastic. It's a great time, and allows a moment for all of us to breathe together and laugh and reflect.
There's a lot of dark out there in the world right now that has to be acknowledged and addressed. And again, in light of what is happening at the border and the imminent raids and issues with immigration, a piece about the Aztecs reclaiming their place in the history, and guiding the future narrative toward inclusion seems vital. I'm a revolutionary optimist, and I believe our weapons as artists are love and humor and straight talk and light. It is to entertain, engage conversation, and facilitate empathy.
The show is a hopeful, hilarious call to arms. As Colombina, our heroine, says, "We are the warriors we have been waiting for."
And I'm so honored to be on this journey with this family of epic talent and huge humanitarian hearts. We are doing a show about the Conquest of Mexico and colonial oppression-we couldn't ignore the current border crisis and treatment of immigrants at detention centers.
Joel and Angelica spearheaded a fundraising campaign for two organizations: RAICES and BORDER ANGELS. In only two weeks, we have raised over $40,000. The generosity of Berkeley has been astounding. It gives me so much hope for where can go together, in solidarity, and affirms how vital sharing (his)stories like Kiss My Aztec! are to foster empathy and reflection and a conversation that moves us forward.
After you wrap up in Nor Cal, you'll be taking the show down to La Jolla. Can audiences expect many changes between runs or is the show pretty much frozen right now? Might an East Coast/NYC run be in the cards?
Our rehearsal period at La Jolla is unfortunately pretty short, so we won't be implementing a lot of major changes for the next run.
As far as an East Coast run, there is a lot of wonderful energy and support around the show so we are hopeful that this is just the beginning of a journey that lands us back in the Apple.
So many of us in the cast are native LatinX New Yorkers, and this show was made with an urban LatinX lens-it'd be great to be back home and offer this celebration back to the source.
Finally, do you have any other projects in the works?
I am focusing on more film/television work, developing my own writing, teaching and mentoring, and creating and facilitating opportunities for other artists of color.
I am also always looking for ways to bring more action and awareness to immigration issues and will be avidly campaigning and registering voters in 2020.
The world premiere of Kiss My Aztec! Runs through July 21 at Berkeley Rep. For tickets and info, visit www.berkeleyrep.org.
The show will then move to La Jolla Playhouse for a scheduled run from Sept. 3 to Oct. 13. Visit lajollaplayhouse.org.