Real life on stage: When life throws you ‘Curves’

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AURORA  | There is a power in seeing a reflection of one’s self on stage or on screen, of witnessing an entire story full of people that look and sound like your community. But that empowerment has often been denied to anyone who doesn’t have light skin and a Y chromosome.

The power of representation is one of the reasons the Aurora Fox theater decided to put “Real Women Have Curves” onto its lineup for this current season. The play, which debuted Feb. 23, tells the story of five Latina women working in a sewing factory in East Los Angeles. The detriment of not being able to see your own story told is something the actors in the play know all too well, which make being in this show something more than just another gig.

“I remember years ago taking a play (about Chicano culture) to Ogden, Utah, where you don’t expect to see many Chicanos or Mexican Americans. After the play was over, people started crying because the play was written about their community,” said Debra Gallegos, who plays Carmen in “Real Women” and also helped found the Denver Chicano theater company Su Teatro. “It validates a person’s culture. It says their stories are important. And that then makes people, especially young people, feel OK. They can say, I’m alright, I’m a part of this fabric of the United States and my story matters too.”

Gallegos said growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, she thought there was something wrong with her and her family because she didn’t see anyone who looked like them on the screen or stage.

“My beauty isn’t like that. So there must be something wrong with me,” Gallegos said.

The reaction to the new “Black Panther” movie is the perfect example of what a piece of art can do for a community that has too often been underrepresented and misrepresented. African-Americans across the country went to the movie not just to see great action and a well-written plot, but also to find the power that has been denied them by the entertainment industry. Unlike their white neighbors, they’ve had to wait decades just to see a single action movie full of characters that look just like them that are front and center and not relegated to the sidekick.

“Not being able to see a reflection of your story, it shortchanges kids from having their own models, of having an identity to borrow from, to have someone they can model after,” said Marina Pereira, associate dean of Metropolitan State University of Denver’s College of Letter, Arts and Science. “In a sense it stunts your growth. You don’t have anyone who you can look up to and identify with.”

Pereira said for American children in the Latino community, too often they are presented with characters that are either the “gangbanger or the gardner,” which isn’t a true reflection of the community. They are only presented with two options and denied the ability to see the stories of their family and their neighbors told in an accurate way.

Lack of representation on stage and screen doesn’t just have a detrimental effect to those left out in the cold. It has a real negative effect to those who get to see their story told all the time.

“I come from a demographic where I’ve not had trouble seeing my demographic represented. One of the values of film and art though is I get to see perspectives I haven’t thought of before,” said Jeremy Dehn, a filmmaker who teaches at the University of Denver. “I do think that’s powerful and if nothing else, it’s a way we can attempt to understand one another and share experiences. That’s why I think it’s important that we have different perspectives telling their stories.”

Joelle Montoya, who plays Ana in “Real Women,” said she hoped people leave the play not only rooting for the women on stage, but realizing those characters are a reflection of such a huge part of this community and this country.

“If they’re rooting for us at end, my hope is they realize this story is the story of many undocumented workers in the United States trying to make their life and their children’s lives better,” Montoya said. “I’m able to be an actor only because my grandparents worked so hard to make a great life for my parents, and they worked so hard to make a better life for me. Maybe the audience will see undocumented workers are people just trying to contribute to the community and make their lives better.”

“Real Women Have Curves” at the Fox Theater, playing now through March 18. For tickets and information, visit aurorafoxartscenter.org/afac/realwomen/.