I can’t be the first to admit that the pandemic has made me cynical.
Maybe it wasn’t the pandemic itself—it’s more apt to blame an (ironically) mandarin-tinted ex-federal leader of the United States for inciting violence primarily toward People of Color, regularly denying the existence and persistence of a deadly disease that paralyzed the entire world for 3 years, and dividing whole groups of people for political gain. But, truthfully, it was also the hours I spent endlessly scrolling through Karen videos on TikTok that did it. During this awful time of immense stress and lack of control, there was something comforting about silently scrutinizing people I didn’t know from the safety of my bedroom.
For the last 3 years, I was so focused on the differences of opinions I had with others that, in this reintegration into “normal life,” I’m remembering why it’s important to also consider what makes us the same, especially in such life-or-death circumstances as we all have been experiencing. Understandably, we had to learn to be defensive in the height of the pandemic to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Now, it’s time for compassion.
Erlina Ortiz invites the audience back to a standard of compassion in the West Coast premiere of La Egoista at Skylight Theatre Company. Her self-proclaimed “pandemic play” (although, not exactly in the way you might think) follows the rocky relationship of two sisters who are called to set aside their differences during a life-altering health crisis. For what is family, if not the people who you would sacrifice everything for?
I got to sit down on Zoom with Erlina Ortiz and director Daphnie Sicre to talk more in depth about the significance of this play, right here and now, in an endemic Los Angeles.
Carolina Pilar Xique for LAFPI: Tell me about the process. Erlina, how did you start this piece and how has it grown?
Erlina Ortiz: The piece actually started as a 10-minute play that was commissioned [by Live & In Color] during the pandemic: write a piece about two people in two separate spaces communicating in a virtual capacity—like on Zoom—so that two actors in different spaces could perform it. So that gave me the idea, “What would cause two people who want to be near each other, to be far away?” I had a lot of themes rolling around in my head about caregiving and having to define a new normal that we were all going through. Then a year later, that same company got funding to commission one full-length play and they reached out to me and asked if I was interested. I said I was if I can use the same characters as before and expand on it. So, I dove in with all the ingredients.
At this point I knew that I wanted one of the characters to be doing stand-up during the show and have her comedy be an aspect of the storytelling, so I was writing the jokes. From there, I submitted it to the LTC (Latinx Theatre Commons) Comedy Carnaval. (I was like, “Well, I have this play that I just finished a couple of months ago. I just had a reading of it and there’s stuff that still needs work but I know it’s strong—and it has a comedian in it!”) I submitted and most of the folks who have directed the piece so far connected with it because they were on the reading committee for LTC or they were involved in choosing the plays. After the [Comedy Carnaval] presentation in Denver, that’s when the productions came along.
Daphnie Sicre: We were like, “Ring Ring! Can we direct your show?” (laughs)
Carolina: Daphnie, how has the rehearsal process been? Have your thoughts about the play evolved since you first read it?
Daphnie: I will say this: my thoughts haven’t evolved about the play. I still feel just as passionate and I love it just as much even though I’m exhausted and tired. (laughs) You don’t often get a play where you’ve had 28 rehearsals and you’re still laughing. That doesn’t often happen. And so to be this deep in rehearsals and still be laughing, to me, speaks volumes.
The process has been incredibly intense because there are a lot of factors involved in the production. Erlina is asking the actor who plays Josefina to not only just act, but to also be a puppeteer and a stand-up comic, and so the play needs a really strong actor who can do these three things.
Both actors had to learn puppeteering so we brought in a puppeteering consultant to sit in on rehearsals with them. We also brought in a consultant to work with Lyse [Perez, the actor playing Josefina] to learn how to be a stand-up comedian: what are the rules of stand-up, and what stand-up entails. In both sessions we had with the consultants, I learned so much. They taught in a way that was so enlightening for me as a director and for the actors as well. So, process-wise, I’ve definitely been learning and enjoying and laughing. And I can’t ask for more than that when you think about it, because I don’t always get to do that!
Carolina: Can both of you talk a little bit about this question: Why this play, today, here, right now?
Erlina: In the pandemic, everyone said that playwrights were going to come out with their pandemic plays. But everyone was like, “I don’t want to read a pandemic play. Maybe in 10 years, I’ll read a pandemic play, but while we’re still living in it, I don’t want to read about it.”
This is my pandemic play in the way that we were all faced with this new reality: our own mortality and healthcare, which is a big theme in the piece. So many of us were faced with the questions, “Who do I give my attention to? Where do my priorities lie now that this crisis has hit?” A lot of people had to drop everything because they were ill or because they had to take care of somebody who was ill during the pandemic. I think that that is the main thing we—across age, race, gender—can all relate to: ourselves or someone else dealing with a health issue and the questions, choices, and sacrifices that come up with dealing with that.
Also, it’s time to hear more of our stories as Latine folks, and not just stories that have to do with a very specific Latine issue—often centered around the trauma of border-crossing or things like that. These sisters are just Latina (laughs). They just are. They don’t have to explain it, they don’t have to talk about it. It informs every aspect of their lives, but it’s not the point of the play. It resonates with folks: the universality of the story but also the specific story of these two sisters.
Daphnie: Ditto, ditto, ditto. For me, first of all, is the importance of the healthcare issue. That’s the realism that you’re looking at in the play—it’s the dealing with this healthcare system, the waiting on the phone for an answer, the doctors not knowing what’s wrong with you, having to go through procedures, experiencing the shit you have to experience when you’re sick and ill, and not knowing if you’re going to get better, and the doctors not knowing if you’re going to get better, and thinking you’re going to get better and then getting worse—all while dealing with healthcare, pain & bills.
There’s a scene that really digs into that and the audience during previews nodded in agreement. You could tell that they’ve experienced that. It’s crazy but that’s the reality of the healthcare system in the United States. Having to make the choice of not going to the ER because it’s expensive, or the fact that you no longer have sick days because you’ve used sick days taking care of your family members and your work doesn’t allow for that. That’s the society we’re living in and that is key and essential to the story. But it’s also this beautiful story of sisterhood and these two Latina sisters, who are very different but the same. Their relationship isn’t easy, but it’s so real.
Erlina: I think that’s also maybe another thing that makes it of the moment, is that a lot of people right now are dealing with the realities of everything that happened post-2016 [presidential election]. A lot of families might have very different beliefs between different family members. There’s a lot of folks that have to dig into love, even in moments of disagreement. That’s what these sisters do for each other, too. Despite having completely different worldviews, they go back to the love they’ve had for each other since childhood and that’s what keeps them going. People need that right now to get us through this time.
Daphnie: When I read this play, I think about Generation Z & Millennials and how they are overcoming toxic families, generational trauma, and are really confronting it in a way that I haven’t seen in older generations. I believe that in a lot of Latine families we were raised—especially as women, as Latinas—to be the caregivers. There’s a sort of unwritten rule of assumption that we will take care of our own parents as they get older and put everything else in our lives on the wayside for our family. What most plays don’t talk about—but this play does—is what that does to caregivers.
This play is about two caregivers: Betsaida taking care of her mother, and Josefina now taking care of Betsaida. We need to talk about what it does to us, what we end up sacrificing, and how we put ourselves second for others. What does it mean to give up on a dream or goal that you’ve been working so hard to achieve? Anyone who has had to give up a dream that they’ve had for so long for someone else that they love is going to resonate with this play.
Carolina: Do you have a sister/someone like a sister in your life? What have they taught you?
Erlina: I grew up with brothers. I have some [younger] sisters, and—in talking about what you sacrifice and keep in your life—I’m actually raising my 13-year-old sister. While writing this play, I was signing guardianship paperwork for her, so that was prevalent in my head. From her I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned how to be a parent and learned how to forgive my own preteen self for the things I’d do and the way I felt about myself. I’m seeing similarities between me and her, but I don’t worry about her at all because I was more of a mess.
I think that the relationship with my two brothers that I grew up with is actually more reflective of the relationship between Josefina & Betsaida. Josefina is a lot like my older brother: somebody who likes to push buttons, likes to annoy you, likes to instigate. My little brother has been sick his whole life and I’ve had a lot of guilt over the years. We were friends as kids, but then for many years as adults, we never hung out. When I was finally in my mid-twenties and he was in his early twenties, we hung out as adults for the first time. Now even when we don’t see each other or talk to each other after a while, we have this central, strong connection between us. It’s the same for my older brother, too.
Daphnie: I have an older brother and we are so incredibly different. We have different political ideologies that could not be more radically different. And my brother loves to instigate and fuck with me all the time. He takes so much joy in it. It drives me crazy. But because of him, I’m able to see the other side of how other people think politically, and it fascinates me. It’s the same thing for him—we look at each other and can’t understand how we can be so different. But I love him. I absolutely love him and everything about him, even his awful political ideologies. And I miss him.
There’s a powerful part in the play where Betsaida reminds Josefina, “You didn’t call me for 4 months.” And sometimes, it’s like that. That to me is the essence of family & siblinghood, and we see that in this play. We see two completely different people who love each other very much, would do anything for each other, and would sacrifice for each other even though they see the world so differently. I think it’s beautiful and honest because it exists in all our relationships.
The first play in Skylight’s all femme-penned season, the West Coast Premiere of La Egoista by Erlina Ortiz, directed by Daphnie Sicre, runs at Skylight Theatre through April 9, 2023. ASL Interpreted performance on March 19. For tickets and information, visit skylighttheatre.org/event/la-egoista.