By Lily Janiak Wed., Jan. 25 2012 at 3:00 PM
In the indigenous religion explored in Cherrie Moraga‘s New Fire–To Put Things Right Again, the sky is a female being. “During times of chaos,” says the recorded voice of a narrator, “this female force came down to Earth to put things right again.”
Things are decidedly not right in the world of this co-production by Brava Theater and cihuatl productions, especially for indigenous women of Mexico. Testimonies from both live performers and projected film interviews evoke a shared sense of indigenous female suffering: abuse, rape, poverty, separation from loved ones. But the ever-poetic Moraga, who gained prominence in the 90s with her pioneering plays about LGBT and Chicana identity, turns victimhood into strength. Bruises “rise up like huge mountains of revolt.” Owning indigenous identity is to be basura in the eyes of many, but it also means “we know where we came from.”
Descending to Earth to help right these wrongs, the sky goddesses open the production with truly supernatural force. As they dance one by one onto center stage, they keep their faces down, pointing the colorful designs on the tops of their straw hats directly at the audience. Eventually, you realize that those designs are eyes — all-seeing eyes from which the beings derive their power. Underscoring their dance is the mesmerizing soundscape of designer D’Lo. His layered sounds of breath, water, birds, rattling and the didgeridoo suggest a profusion of nature’s elements rising in concert to welcome the spirits.
New Fire contains some narrative elements, mostly centered on Vero (Dena Martinez) and El Caminante (Robert Owens-Greygrass), who both interacts with her and narrates her terrible past. But the production is more a collective ritual than a traditional drama, one in which the audience helps Vero reckon with her history and get reborn.
Moraga, who also directs, draws on the expertise and artistry of many practitioners of indigenous ritual, giving the piece a collaborative feel. Charlene O’Rourke’s singing and chanting, with Stephen Luis Cervantes and Jorge Molina on the water drums and other instruments, practically transports you to the communal fire. And conceptual artist Celia Herrera Rodriguez’s set vividly evokes the proximity of spiritual forces as well as a vital sense of community.
All of these artists sit onstage throughout the production, more as observers than performers, endowing the proceedings with their gravitas, while also inviting the audience to participate.
As with much of Moraga’s work, New Fire will resonate most with those who might not see their experience reflected elsewhere on the stage. Others will find its contemplative pace novel but nonetheless accessible. New Fire demands presence and slowness. It’s jarring at first, but Vero’s journey becomes that much more rewarding because you feel as though you are part of it. As Vero herself says, “The ceremonial way of life can be challenging,” but with it, “you can live free.”
New Fire continues through Jan. 29 at the Brava Theater, 2781 24th St. (at York St.), S.F. Admission is $10 – $30; 647-2822 or www.brava.org.