Judging from the news headlines nearly every week, race relations in the U.S. remain a social minefield that is difficult to navigate. One of the most direct intersections of race and culture occurs on the stroller-jammed sidewalks where career-driven white women often hire Latina women as nannies to raise their children, ignoring or downplaying the fact that many of these hired hands have their own children to raise.
Lisa Looper’s 2009 play, Living Out, smartly captures this world. Although set in Los Angeles a decade ago, it is certainly applicable to many other locales, including modern day Columbia Heights – the Washington, D.C. neighborhood where the play is receiving a solid production at the GALA Hispanic Theatre.
‘Living Out’ is compelling thanks to the tight cast…
As the privileged women create their lives wrapped up in Whole Foods and “All Things Considered,” they hire those about whom they know very little – and don’t really care to know more. The play begins with a series of job interviews for Ana (Belen Oyola-Rebaza), an undocumented worker from El Salvador with a husband and one son in the U.S. and another son back in Central America. “Everybody is from El Salvador these days!” exclaims the first insensitive potential employer. “What happened to all the Mexicans?”
Things go fairly well in the interviews until the employers realize Ana has a young son of her own. The women are so concerned about the upbringing of their own children that they must reject her because of conflicting allegiances. The home experience doesn’t matter. The assumption is that nannies who have children would be less “flexible” to work late or at a moment’s notice. So for the third interview, Ana says her both her sons are back in El Salvador and she gets the job.
The kids in the play are all baby dolls, passed back and forth like so many emotional footballs. Nancy (Megan Behem), who hired Ana, is anxious to get back to work as a lawyer. It never occurs to her husband Richard (Kyle McGruther) – also a lawyer – to lend more of a hand in the upbringing of their new baby. Things happen to threaten and define the working relationship between the couple and Ana.
At the playground, the Latina nannies gather and gossip about their employers just as the mothers gather and gossip about the nannies. Looper’s dialog is clever and director Abel López picks up on the incongruities with his own visual humor. It’s all so much more direct and realistic than, say, the TV series, Devious Maids, which exploits the same territory for the sake of soap opera drama.
Living Out is compelling thanks to the tight cast led by Oyola-Rebaza whose Ana is tough and vulnerable. She must drive three hours a day just to care for another woman’s child. As her employer, Behem’s character is as earnest as she is unsure about how to raise her own child. McGruther still has to find a tone between ignored husband and frustrated rocker, but he gives a fine performance.
With plenty of comic prowess, Wallace (Lisa Hodsoll) and Linda (Amal Saade) round out the trio of gringa women for whom yoga, not youngsters, seems to be the center of their lives. As Ana’s fellow nannies, Sandra (Stefanie Garcia) and Zoila (Lorena Sabogal) are very convincing. Peter Pereya adds a jolt of machismo that goes a long way as Ana’s husband.
Giorgos Tsappas’ sets reflect the sleek, stone homes of the well to do as well as the stark home of their workers – even when they are simultaneously depicted. There seems a lot of excess fuss in changing couches into park benches every time they do scenes at the playground. Cory Ryan Frank’s lighting suggests the leafy playground just as well as any furniture.
Sometimes theater takes viewers far away to other cultures or imagined times. Living Out (a term for nannies who do not “live in”) brings something central to everyday life and allows us to examine it anew, with lightness as well as with serious intent. Get a babysitter and “take it in.”
Running Time: Two hours including one 15-minute intermission.
Living Out, presented in English with Spanish subtitles, continues through May 18 at the GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW, Washington DC. Call 202-234-7174 or visit online.