By: Daisy Solis
Inspiration can come in many forms… even at the expense and tragedy of others! That is exactly what happened when the light bulb went off for playwrights, Josefina Lopez of “Real Women Have Curves” and Kathy Fischer, when reading a 2011 Vanity Fair article about Freddie de Cordova, Johnny Carson’s longtime producer, who died in 2001. Upon Freddie’s passing, his wife knew her Harry Winston and big caviar days were over and she did something that shocked Beverly Hills . . . she moved in with her loyal maid in Mexico. Now, combine that story along with that of American financial fraudster Bernie Madoff’s wife Ruth’s misfortune upon his being exposed and incarcerated, [Bernie’s wife, Ruth, was blacklisted from every spa, 5-star hotel and country club around the world], and you have yourself the flavorful Boyle Heights version of these two Beverly Hills riches-to-rags tragedies and voila, CLEAN START is born!
CLEAN START was created when America’s economic recession was in full swing and people found themselves losing their homes. I must say that its 2017 re-release could not be timelier due to the political climate that we are experiencing. With plays like “Real Women Have Curves” Josefina is obviously someone who stands firmly for women’s rights and their empowerment in society.
CLEAN START is a feel good play that blurs the lines of economic and social stature when life’s unexpected hardships brings together 4 women: Beverly Hills socialite, Parker Reed (Kim Chase, The Last Producer), her former maid, Rosario Rodriguez (Ingrid Oliu, Stand and Deliver), Rosario’s mother, Doña Maria Rodriguez (Liane Schirmer, The Boy in the Back) and last but not least, Rosario’s spoiled, self-centered, diva of a baby sister, [and my favorite dancing queen], Blanca, (Maria Russell, Lights Out.)
All of Josefina’s plays come with a message, you will always find a lesson learned, and CLEAN START, being a comedy and the lightest of all, is no exception: “There is a universal oppression in being a beautiful woman, as if that were the extent of your value and self-worth. Through this experience Parker comes to the realization that being helpless, clueless and never involved in anything, other than herself, has not truly served her. “
There is a touch of Golden Girls with Rosario’s oversexed and immature sister, Blanca, and her wise-cracking mother Doña Maria. CLEAN START is a story of sisterhood and women moving beyond social class. You have the hard-working passive, loyal and sympathetic maid who saves enough money to buy a house and is providing for her mother and sister, but suddenly finds herself caught between a rock and a hard place when her former employer moves in. It is about finding that rainbow in the clouds during financial hardship. The women discover self-growth, inner-strength, independence and believe it or not, common ground. They learn that you can shed the layers that you do not need and keep what is truly valuable: unconditional friendship and the loyalty of the people who, wholeheartedly, have your back during your brightest and darkest moments.
I had the opportunity to briefly speak with Josefina before the Salsa music started up at her new restaurant, Casa Fina. (Yes, we had to put our own little LatinDancePro.com spin on the evening and hosted a special Salsa night for our students after the play!) I had the privilege to learn a little bit more about the woman behind the play… that same women, who by the way, opened CASA 0101 Theatre in Boyle Heights to give Latino actors an outlet to grow and show their talent and tell the stories that need to be told. I discovered that Josefina is a woman of strength and passion… A woman determined to change the narrative of the role Latinos currently play in Hollywood. A woman, as we say in México, “sin pelos en la lengua”:
DS: I loved the play… I actually saw it two years ago and it is such a feel-good production! So very timely in it’s re-release.
JL: Oh good! Thank you, I am glad you liked it! That is exactly why I brought it out again, because we are going through such depressing times. I wanted to bring out a comedy that left people feeling good.
DS: Funny thing, I just noticed as I was sitting in the audience watching these four women, and now as I am sitting here in your restaurant looking at a copy of “Hungry Women in Paris”, that everything you write about revolves around women. As it should! How did this happen?
JL: I noticed the obvious: there weren’t enough stories about women. I write about women because I would see how powerless women were and as a little girl I always wanted to rescue my mother. That’s part of it. I wanted to create a world where I get to win and I get to love my life being a woman. I am writing the roles and I am telling the stories that I think are important and showing the value and power of women. That is why everything is centered around women. It’s taking the things that are viewed as shameful and taboo and throwing them out the window and highlighting the beauty of our flaws. When we realize there is nothing to be ashamed of, there is nothing to apologize for. Being Latina is enough, being a human being is enough.
DS: When did that sense of “I AM ENOUGH” come to light for you?
JL: I’ve been doing theatre for so long. I did REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES in my underwear! I had to strip in front of 300 people for more than 48 performances. If THAT doesn’t say, “I AM ENOUGH”, then I don’t know what does!
DS: That scene had so many messages. More than an obvious refreshing decision due to working in a sweatshop, literally and figuratively, on a smoldering hot summer day, it was taking a stand and an open invitation for women to enjoy their bodies and revel in the power of their beauty. I believe the film touched on feminism beyond that of textbook theory, it lays in the intersection of gender, race, and class and in a unique way, it shed light on the women who exist in society’s margins and are constantly disregarded in mainstream feminist spaces. Despite the 15 years that have passed since its release, REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES still resonates within today’s socio-political landscape . . . OK, that was a mouthful on my end! My apologies! Do you feel the face of Hollywood has changed from the stereotypical blue-eyed blonde?
JL: It hasn’t changed. It hasn’t improved. There are a few token roles here and there and a few efforts by some people but we still have 5 to 10 years to go before Latinos can finally get past the stereotype.
DS: Would you agree: we find very few roles, but encounter very frequent stereotypes?
JL: Yes, because so long as Latinos are not writing, directing and producing for themselves, we are going to continue playing stereotypes.
DS: Eugenio Derbez did it and said it best when he decided to start his own company and create his own roles, if not he was going to “continue playing the gardener and bus boy in Hollywood productions.” Is THAT what needs to be done?
JL: That’s what has to happen. I think we are now at the point where so many Latinos can now direct and produce, but we still need funding and distribution. That’s where we’re at right now. There are so many Latinos who can produce, but we don’t have enough investment, money and finances, but once we have that, I think we will all be doing it ourselves. Just like the African-American community, they are now doing it themselves. That’s why I opened up CASA. I couldn’t get someone to produce my play. And like Eugenio Derbez, I said, I am going to have to produce it myself and that’s when I wrote REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES, to create roles for myself too. I’ve been creating my own reality. Realizing that no one was going to discover me and if someone wants to help me, great. But I was responsible for my dreams and I created CASA to give opportunities to other people. I actually discovered that when you give other people the opportunities you didn’t have and help them accomplish their dreams, you get to heal that pain you experienced being rejected or being an outsider.
DS: We’ve been seeing diversity at the Oscars more. Specifically this year. However, we are not there yet…
JL: No, we’re not, because no one wants to invest tons of money in people with “no names”. . . I tell people, it’s not just about making movies. Whoever controls the narrative, controls reality. They control the hierarchy of who’s the most valuable.
DS: Mainstream media has said that the diversity issue has been solved. Obviously they are looking at it in black and white. Literally. However, Latinos continue to be overlooked in Hollywood. What do we, as a people, need to do?
JL: We need to find investors. We need to find the money. I’m 48. When I started out as a screenwriter, I was 18 or 19 years old. The big thing back then was that there weren’t enough Latino screenwriters, so I became a professional writer at 21 for the Writers’ Guild. By the time I was 25 there were already 200 Latino screenwriters in the Guild, so it wasn’t because of a lack of writers. So then I thought, we need producers. We now have many Latino producers. Now what we really need a lot of is investment and distribution in films. No one is going to invest in a movie unless it has stars, and you cannot get a star unless you have distribution, and you can’t get distribution unless, [again], you have stars, so it’s a catch 22 that everyone experiences. However, we don’t have too many Latino stars and the sad tragedy is that once those Latinos become stars, they don’t want to do independent films. They want to stick to studio films because they want their careers to blow up. It’s when they fail that they start doing independent films, unless they start out doing independent films and then they are discovered, but after that happens they refuse to go back. That’s been my problem. When I was trying to direct a movie, we couldn’t get Latino stars because many actors did not want to be known as Latinos. They felt that it was a burden they didn’t want to carry. So it really comes down to money. People often ask me, when is the next movie coming out, and my response is: that’s what I’d like to know… It’s not that I haven’t written 8 other screenplays already, I just can’t get the money. Until Latinos put their money where their mouth is when they say our stories matter, it’s not going to happen. Everyone wants to be the hero of their story, right? So why would a white man want to give up being the hero of their story? No matter how much they messed up the world, they still want to be the hero of their story. I’m sure Trump thinks he’s the hero of his story. History shows men being the heroes of the story and women being the losers of the story. So what we are doing here is very political because he or she who controls the narrative, controls reality, and who controls reality, controls the values and the way we see the world. By valuing certain things, we give it currency.
DS: As far as CLEAN START is concerned, what message did you want to convey?
JL: I came up with the idea of a Latina Golden Girls, but I knew that TV was not going to want to produce a show about Latina Golden Girls, they were going to say, oh we need white women . . . It always happens. But when there is a movie about white people I don’t see them asking, where are the Latinos? They don’t seem to care, so why should we? But that is something we are burdened with. So then I thought, how can we get a white woman to come and live with a bunch of Latinas and then I thought, well, what if she loses all her money and she’s forced to live in East LA? That’s how the premise came about and it turns out that something like that had actually happened. There was an article in Vanity Fair about a woman who lost all her money and no one would take her in except her maid and she ended up going to Mexico to move in with her. True story. So I started working with my co-writer Kathy and we started developing it. We were trying to sell the sitcom 4 or 5 years ago. We pitched it to 10 different production companies and networks and we couldn’t sell it. Someone had sold a similar pitch about a white guy whose rich parents disown him and ends up living with his nanny in East LA. When they bought that pilot it killed our project and so I told Kathy, let’s make it a play and then perhaps turn it into a web series and get producers to come and see it. What I wanted to do with story is reverse the roles. It’s always the white people doing the saving and empowering whenever there is ethic people involved. I hate that; you can’t have real equality and intimacy unless there is a fair exchange. What’s great about this story is that you see some type of exchange, and that is exactly what she [Rosario, the maid] talks about when she says: until there is some kind of exchange, I work for you or you work me, but there is no intimacy, there’s no equality. When white people look at us and feel sorry for us, I fire back with: don’t feel sorry for us. You may be the ones with all the properties and all the money, but we have all the fun. At the end of the day, even though there is so much discrimination, we are the ones having all the fun. We know how to love and we know how to live and we value our families. There is a lot they can learn from us. They would be better human beings as a result of it.
DS: Similar to that documentary Happy. The humblest of people were truly grateful for what they had. They saw the true value of it and saw it as a blessing, never as a lack.
JL: Exactly. I try to infuse my stories with dignity. I am not writing about victims. I am writing about people who are resilient, who have a sense of humor and doing the best they can. These are wonderful lessons for people who think that we are victims. If the roles were reversed, they would be the ones suffering; they would be feeling sorry for themselves because they don’t have the type of creativity and resiliency that we do. I’m here to teach you that we have a lot of value. That what you think is lacking in us, is what’s lacking in your humanity. I think every single human being has something to offer and teach one another because we are all succeeding and overcoming different struggles, but in the end once we all get to really know one another, we become whole.
DS: Finally, what gives you ALEGRIA?
JL: My ALEGRIA comes from being present in the moment and realizing that everything is perfect right now. Seeing all these people having a great time and eating our food and being at my restaurant, where I get to celebrate being Mexican, is a moment of joy. Seeing people love their life, especially when they’re on stage and they are making people laugh and they are really being present and authentic and the audience feels connected and everyone is feeling the humanity and we all feel good about ourselves THAT gives me tremendous joy.
** CLEAN START will be closing out a very successful run this weekend at CASA 0101 Theater in Boyle Heights: 2102 E. 1st Street, Los Angeles CA 90033. Get your tickets for Friday June 14th, Saturday June 15th or Sunday June 16th at: www.casa0101.org