Funny in a ‘foreign’ language

Courtesy: Denver Center for the Performing Arts

It’s no great secret that being a woman in a leadership position comes with many unfair challenges — and for women of color, those challenges are often more complicated. Set in the vibrant Wynwood Arts District of Miami, the world premiere of Alexis Scheer’s uproarious new comedy Laughs in Spanish unwinds these complexities with a thoughtful dive into the expectations and barriers faced by women of color looking for a path to success in the art scene.

“I am a Latina, leader, artist and director whose career often requires that I leave my children in Chicago so I can go direct, and that comes with a whole ball of complex emotions,” says director Lisa Portes. “The play is centered around the question of what it means to be a woman of color who is an artist and a mother. I live in that territory all the time.”

Sheer’s play begins on the cusp of Art Basel — an international art fair that began in Switzerland in the 1970s but expanded to include Miami Beach in 2002 — after the exhibition space of gallery director Mariana (Stephanie Machado) has been robbed on the eve of a fancy party for the event. But Mariana isn’t alone. She has her intern Carolina (Danielle Alonzo) and her intern’s boyfriend and police officer, Juan (Luis Vega) alongside her TV-star mother, Estella (Maggie Bofill) to help her save the gallery.

With Laughs in Spanish, the playwright draws on her real experiences growing up in Miami and offers a touching but light-hearted look at the barriers that have been put up to exclude Latinas from cultural spaces. But despite touching on serious themes of inequality in the art world, the creative team behind the upcoming production at Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA) promises the show will be a lot of fun.

“I love how funny the play is,” says actor Danielle Alonzo, who plays Carolina. “It’s so well-written, relatable and very conversational; it sounds like how I would talk to my friends. All the exposition is happening, but it’s furious and funny out the gate.”

Walking this fine balance between poignant and playful, Laughs in Spanish was written by Scheer as her thesis for Boston University’s MFA playwriting program. The play is the follow up to her breakout hit, Dear Dead Drug Lorda dark comedy about young girls attempting to bring Pablo Escobar back to life, which debuted off-Broadway in 2019.

“When I got an audition for this play, I was excited because I had seen Dear Dead Drug Lord in New York City pre-pandemic and loved it,” says actor Luis Vega, who plays Juan. “There are times when you see a playwright who you’ve never heard of and you just get this feeling that they are a once-in-a-generation voice; I had that feeling … so I was excited to work with [Sheer] on whatever she did next.”

Portes also had first encountered Scheer through her debut play. She produced a reading of the work at LTC Carnival of New Latinx Work back in 2018. So when Portes received an email in May from DCPA Theater Company Director Chris Coleman asking her to interview to direct Laughs in Spanishsaying “yes” was a no brainer.

“I knew Alexis was interviewing several people, so after reading [Laughs in Spanish] I wrote her a note entitled ‘Five Reasons Why I Need to Direct the Play.’ Happily, she picked me,” Portes says. “This is my third show with the DCPA. I feel like it’s become kind of an artistic home. And so, to do a world premiere of a play by a writer I love at a theater I love is just fabulous.”

Alonzo shares Portes’ enthusiasm for the new work, saying a big part of what made the rehearsal experience special grew from the camaraderie between a cast with a shared cultural framework. “It’s a unique experience being surrounded by an entire cast of fellow Latinos,” Alonzo says. “Lisa has created such a safe rehearsal room full of people who have similar experiences or can relate to things people go through growing up as a Latina. We have our inside jokes and sometimes we just break out and speak in Spanish like we would at home.”

Vega also emphasizes this cultural camaraderie when reflecting on her favorite moments in the play. She points to the pivotal scene from which Scheer pulls the title. “We’re having a lot of fun figuring out what it means to laugh in Spanish,” Vega says. “How is our experience different than other Americans? And how does that come out in our laughter? The bottom line is, it’s super fun to giggle on stage. It’s infectious and I hope the audience responds similarly when they come to see it.”

Beyond these cross-cultural explorations of Latino life in the United States, the play also promises to give Coloradans a reprieve from the cold weather outside. “It’s Miami and the set is just so warm with all these beautiful colors,” Alonzo says. “There’s food, there’s culture and there are these lovely family and relationship dynamics the characters are going through and everyone can relate to. You’ll cry because the play might hit close to home, but then you’re gonna laugh and leave happy because it’ll remind you of the love you feel for your family.”


ON STAGE: Laughs in Spanish by Alexis Scheer. Various times Jan. 27-March 12, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 1101 13th St. Tickets here.

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