For the first-time expectant mother, one question weighed heavily on her mind, “Am I going to continue remaining silent?”
While contemplating her response, Cristal Gonzalez looked back on her childhood and the sexual abuse she endured during those years. “No.,” Gonzalez heard herself saying. She would not allow the silence that had enveloped her life affect her unborn daughter.
Gonzalez’s decision to speak out and end what she calls “generational silence” is now the subject of a play opening this weekend at El Teatro Campensino’s playhouse in San Juan Bautista.
Written and directed by Gonzalez, the play, "Piernas: The Story Between Our Legs," debuts on Friday, May 19 and runs through Sunday, June 4.
Gonzalez, an El Teatro Campesino (ETC) ensemble member and San Juan resident, explained in a telephone interview with BenitoLink earlier this month that her work is the result of coming to terms with that dark period of her youth and the lifelong healing process that she has accepted.
“I gave myself permission to speak about my trauma and abuse,” she said of writing the play.
Born into a farmworker family, Gonzalez grew up in Watsonville. In addition to the abuse, illness and abandonment became part of her life. Her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when Gonzalez turned 4. Two years later, Gonzalez’s father left his wife and four daughters.
The stage became a portal for Cristal’s escape.
“I found theater as a means to cope with the reality at home,” she said, adding, “This world of imagination saved me.”
Another lifeline came years later, when Gonzalez joined ETC in 2010.
The university-trained performer explained that Luis Valdez’s theater company gave her a sense of artistic identity and opportunity to celebrate her bilingualism.
“El Teatro has defined me as an artist and it’s where I found my story. And I began to appreciate my ability to be bilingual,” she said.
Valdez also encouraged Gonzalez to pursue her play writing. And when he discovered that she had completed the script for "Piernas," Valdez offered the playhouse’s stage.
“ ‘This is the place do it. Your play has a home here,' " Gonzalez recalled the ETC founder telling her.
Set in present-day Watsonville and somewhat autobiographical, "Piernas: The Story Between Our Legs" centers on the life of Cecilia, a Los Angeles-based, Chicana journalist who returns to home to tell her family about a secret she has carried for years.
But for much of the play, an opportune moment never presents itself.
Cecilia’s mother is suffering from MS. One sister has suffered a miscarriage. Another discovers her husband’s infidelity. A new career occupies the thoughts of a third.
The protagonist is played by ETC’s education program director and Gonzalez’s fellow ensemble member, Christy Sandoval.
In her telephone interview with BenitoLink, Sandoval described her portrayal of Cecilia as “one of the heaviest roles” she has ever taken on.
She added that the play’s sensitive subject matter forced her to unlearn her teatro training.
“Learning to convey realness is in complete opposite of the El Teatro’s foundations which are rooted in comedy and cartoon-like characters,” Sandoval said.
Despite the challenges, she feels that portraying Cecilia has contributed to her growth “as an actor and performer.”
Described by its creator as a “very female driven play, "Piernas: The Story Between Our Legs" does feature a few male characters, including Pancho, Cecilia’s father.
Played by veteran El Teatro ensemble member and Hollister resident, Noe Montoya, Pancho has returned to his family after running off with another woman 20 years ago.
The “storyteller, musician, and farmworker” knows nothing about his daughter’s secret, Montoya said of Pancho in his phone interview with BenitoLink.
Montoya joined ETC in 1970. And until he was cast in "Piernas" all of his teatro work was in productions written and directed by either Valdez or Valdez’s son, Kinan.
“There’s a different feel to it and it’s refreshing,” Montoya said of his involvement in Gonzalez’s play.
And he noted that her direction style differs greatly from the Valdez’s.
“With Luis, it’s his way and you’re on a short leash,” Montoya said, adding that the younger Valdez “allows for more freedom” but he’s steeped in his father’s methods.
Under Gonzalez, Montoya has been given free rein to develop Pancho.
“Cristal has given me a lot of freedom to find my character and she was very open to where I wanted to take him,” he said.
What Gonzalez never doubted was the direction she wanted to take her play.
As the title suggests, "Piernas" touches upon “all the stories, secrets, silencing, and violations that a woman carries between her legs,” Gonzalez stated in her interview with BenitoLink.
Like her principal character, the playwright attempted to share her trauma with her siblings. But things did not turn out the way she had hoped.
Disappointment meets Cecilia’s efforts, too, changing the play’s course, Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez realizes that the issues raised in "Piernas" may at times make her audience members squirm in their seats. But she also understands that among the theater-goers there may be victims of abuse who are suffering in silence.
Following each performance, Gonzalez will facilitate a “talk-back” session, allowing those who are interested to share their thoughts about the play or perhaps speak of their own experiences with abuse.
In addition, several social service agencies and organizations from Monterey and Santa Cruz counties will be on hand, providing information and resources to individuals seeking help.
“I want to hold space for dialogue and create a place to heal,” said the self-described survivor of abuse about her first, full-length play.
"Piernas: The Story Between Our Legs"
Written and directed by Cristal Gonzalez
Performances: May 19-June 4, 2017
Opening night: May 20
Recommended: for ages 14 and up. ADVISORY: strong language and themes.
Location: El Teatro Campensino, 705 4th St., San Juan Bautista
Tickets: $12-$15 (Group rates available for 10 or more contact: Licha Munoz, 831-623-2444.
Box Office: 1-800-838-3006
For more information visit: http://piernas.brownpapertickets.com
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