Some people send flowers for Mother’s Day. But for onetime Chicago theatermaker Carlo Lorenzo García, his bouquet for his mom, María Guadalupe, takes the form of art. Based in Austin since 2016, García spent part of his time in COVID lockdown finally delving into the story of his mom’s harrowing childhood in Laredo, Texas, and her subsequent escape to Chicago. The result, a new digital solo show, A Portrait of My Mother, opens on Mother’s Day through Austin’s Jarrott Productions.
“My mother’s story has always been interesting to me, partly because it’s been the story that I’ve garnered bits and pieces over time,” says García. “I always wanted to take her story and write it, turn it into a play or turn it into a film or something.”
Who is his mother? Early in the show, García tells us, “María Guadalupe . . . Last Name? That’s up for debate. There were many possibilities . . . OK, well, four possibilities: Lara, Morado, Salinas, García . . . but, like many of us, she would not get to choose her last name.”
Born to a woman who herself already had 12 kids (with nine more to follow), García’s mom was taken in at age five by the sister of her biological father (surname García). “Taken in,” however, meant that she was subjected to a horrific childhood, where she was forced to do all the household chores in her aunt’s home, could only attend school intermittently, slept on a bed of rags on the kitchen floor, and was habitually beaten. As García says in the show, “Any little error, the slightest misstep and her foster mother would get the belt, the broomstick, the wire hanger, the electrical cord and would whip my mother until she crawled into a ball.”
Right after turning 18, on New Year’s Eve, María Guadalupe bought a bus ticket to Chicago, where she slept on benches in the Greyhound station for two weeks. With the help of another young woman who had fled her home, she eventually found work at Chicken Unlimited and several other jobs. She also met Carlo’s father, with whom she had five daughters in addition to her son.
García and his now-wife, actor Natalie DiCristofano García, met doing theater in Chicago. Carlo García’s credits included a dozen years with now-defunct Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company (he directed the troupe’s farewell production of David Mamet’s American Buffalo, a production that the curmudgeonly playwright didn’t want advertised or reviewed). He also notched credits with several other companies around town, including the Goodman, Collaboraction, Lookingglass, and Strawdog. But when Mary-Arrchie closed up shop after losing their longtime Angel Island space on West Sheridan to a developer, García and DiCristofano decided to move closer to his sister’s family in Austin. (His mom still lives in Chicago.)
They’ve stayed busy with theater, film, and television projects since; before the shutdown, he directed onetime Chicago playwright Marisa Wegrzyn‘s The Butcher of Baraboo for Austin’s Street Corner Arts. But the hiatus from live theater gave García space and time to create the show about his mom.
“I just started writing down all the stories that I remembered. And then I started doing some interviews with my mom to kind of fill in the gaps to get more information to get her perspective, her point of view, just background on a lot of the things that I had questions about, to kind of develop the first draft. And then I sent it to her so that she could read it and look at all the content and approve it. It’s important to me that she has agency over this story, because it is her story.”
During the solo, which was shot in one performance, García also literally paints a portrait of his mom. “When I first thought about the idea, I knew I wanted to tell the story. And I just kind of pulled out a generic title—A Portrait of My Mother. As I was going through the stories, I thought, ‘What if I did a painting while I tell the story?’ Just do it with multiple cameras. It adds a different element to it so it doesn’t just feel like I’m sitting there talking. I wanted to activate it in some way and keep it interesting.”
As for María Guadalupe García, she eventually ended up working over 30 years in administration with Chicago Public Schools, raising her children mostly on her own and giving them the love and encouragement she never received as a child, even through financial hardship. Her son believes her interest in kids, particularly in early childhood education, came about because of the horrible experiences she had as a little girl.
It’s also why she consented to her story being told.
Says Carlo García, “For her, it’s important because of the awareness of child abuse. That is a pretty big issue for her. She said if this will bring some awareness to that for people, then she would be happy to share her story. For her, it’s about potentially helping other people. And she’s told me that she feels honored that somebody would want to make a story out of her life. Even if it is just her son.”
Every year, a committee of the American Theatre Critics Association chooses the winners in the prestigious Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award, honoring the best new plays produced outside of New York City. Last week they announced this year’s finalists, and four of the five plays selected all had their world premieres in Chicago in 2020—particularly impressive, given the truncated nature of last year’s theater season.
Those four are: korde arrington tuttle‘s graveyard shift, which premiered at the Goodman; J. Nicole Brooks‘s Her Honor Jane Byrne, which opened at Lookingglass the weekend before the shutdown; The Leopard Play, or Sad Songs for Lost Boys by Isaac Gómez, produced by Steep Theatre; and Brett Neveu‘s Verböten, a House Theatre production capturing Chicago’s early punk scene and featuring music by Jason Narducy, whose title band formed in 1983 when he was 11. The other finalist is Douglas Williams‘s Ship, which premiered at Philadelphia’s Azuka Theatre. The winners are to be named later, most likely in mid-June.
For designers, the Michael Merritt Awards for excellence in design and collaboration are a chance for the people who build the world of the stage to step into the stoplight. This year’s awards will be held via Zoom on Monday, May 17. Named for the late Chicago set designer, who died in 1992 at age 47, the awards have been given out annually since 1994.
This year’s recipient of the Michael Merritt Award for design and collaboration goes to Clint Ramos, the first BIPOC costume designer to ever win a Tony Award for his work on 2016’s Eclipsed by Danai Gurira. Ramos also has a parallel career as an advocate and educator, particularly for queer and BIPOC youth.
For the first time, the Merritt Awards also present the “arts advocate” award, which goes to Elsa Hiltner, Chicago-based costume designer and cofounder of the pay equity organization On Our Team. Sandra Delgado hosts the ceremony, which is free, but registration is required.
Remembering Russ Tutterow
On Saturday, Chicago Dramatists acknowledges the sixth anniversary of the death of founder and longtime artistic director Russ Tutterow, a pivotal force in new play development in the city. From 2-4 PM, the company’s Twitch page will livestream tributes, as well as songs, monologues, and scenes from past Dramatists productions. v