tells a fellow nun in the convent.
"Why?" the sister asks.
why else would we ask why?" Sor Juana replies.
This is a scene from "The Sins of Sor Juana," a play about the imagined life of the 17th century writer, poet, scholar and nun considered by many to be Latin America's first feminist. It is now playing at the Goodman Theatre as part of the Latino Theatre Festival that runs through July 25.
I saw the play last week and found it to be inspiring, emotional and surprisingly humorous. Those of you familiar with the poetry of Sor Juana know that it can be very heavy.
Consider these lines from her poem "You Men."
Silly, you men-so very adept
at wrongly faulting womankind,
not seeing you're alone to blame
for faults you plant in woman's mind
After you've won by urgent plea
the right to tarnish her good name,
you still expect her to behave -
you, that coaxed her into shame.
You batter her resistance down
and then all righteousness proclaim
that feminine frivolity
not your persistence, is to blame.
Playwright Karen Zacarias weaves the poetry and imagines a life story
for Sor Juana that makes her accessible to all audiences. You don't
have to be a feminist or a Latina to appreciate that Sor Juana was not
only an incredible poet but that she broke, no smashed, the conventions
of her time for women seeking an education and the freedom to write.
Director Henry Godinez did a masterful job assembling and directing this cast and most importantly bringing the story of Sor Juana to a larger audience. The set also is striking capturing the colonial Spanish architecture of the convent and the court.
The title character of Sor Juana is played with conviction by actress Malaya Rivera Drew. Her sidekick is her servant Xochitl played by Laura Crotte whose invocations bring levity to the play. Don Pedro, played by actor Joe Miñoso, clumsily tries to woo Sor Juana, and is one of the characters who makes us laugh with a simple gesture or a pose.
Sor Juana faces men who want to silence her, including the Viceroy and Padre Nuñez. These last two characters are played with gusto by actor Tony Plana. He has many Broadway credits but may be best known for his strong television characters as the father of Ugly Betty, the ABC show that was recently cancelled. Some of you also may remember him as the father from the Showtime series Resurrection Boulevard.
Sor Juana is the star of the show and Rivera Drew brings not only beauty but intelligence to her portrayal. There's a breathtaking moment in the play when she takes off her nun's habit and vestments to reveal that underneath she is wearing a red dress that she wore while in the court of the Viceroy. That is when we see the other side of Sor Juana.
The play also depicts an imagined life before she became a nun. Sor Juana struggles with whether to marry for money or love and how above all she can continue her writing pursuits. She was so committed to earning an education that she once dressed as a boy to go to school.
We know ultimately Sor Juana became a nun, which gave her a certain amount of freedom to write although most of the other nuns would prefer that she cross stitch instead. In the end, even the patriarchal leaders of the church and the governing rulers of Mexico (then New Spain) tried to censor her voice.
Sor Juana was a remarkable woman, a groundbreaker for her time. Consider that she struggled for an education and to have a voice and independence as a woman in the 1600s.
Sor Juana paved the way for women writers of later generations. To me, Sor Juana is la madre de todas nuestras voces, the mother of all our voices.