King and Kennedy have been shot, the Americans and Russians continue the race to the moon, and the Vietnam War redefines relations both domestically and abroad; to say that times were "a-changin'" in 1960s America would be an understatement.
Yet for minority and lower class Americans of the 60s, this decade proved especially tough, as demonstrated by the trials faced by Connie (Cheryl Umaña) in the Latino Theater Company's newest production, "The Mother of Henry."
Connie is a Chicana working-class single mother whose husband left her and her son for another woman. She takes up a job at the Sears in Boyle Heights to support her family and is introduced to four employees from different walks of life. The five coworkers eventually come together to support one another as the world around them rapidly changes.
Shortly after beginning at Sears, Connie receives news that her 18-year-old son's draft number has been called, forcing him to trade his textbooks for a ticket to Vietnam. As Connie's anxieties heighten, she is visited by the Virgin of Guadalupe (Esperanza America), who helps her come to terms with many of the questions we all struggle to understand, such as why innocent people die while evil ones thrive.
Through both her conversations with the Virgin of Guadalupe and the political and social unrest Connie and her coworkers endure, each character gains a deeper sense of compassion that was rare to develop during a time of grave bigotry and polarization.
While this summation may give the impression that "The Mother of Henry" is two acts of tragedy, Fernández's witty writing paired with the strong comedic talents of each performer will leave viewers both laughing and wiping away tears until curtain call. With the Sears department office as the setting, the daily interactions between Connie and her co-workers, whose cultural and personality differences often lead to the five butting heads, serve as a humorous reminder of the trials we all face when forming friendships and adapting to new environments.
The projections (Yee Eun Nam) may have accomplished their job of depicting major events such as the moon landing, Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, and even the Virgin of Guadalupe's visits from up above, however, the overly simplistic set design (Emily Anne MacDonald and Cameron Jaye Mock) ultimately proved underwhelming.
Though for what the Latino Theater Company's "The Mother of Henry" lacks in technical extravagance, it compensates for in intimacy and heart; Connie's story is based on the trials that playwright Fernández faced in her own life. In the '60s, Boyle Heights was still very diverse, and she worked with all kinds of people: Jewish, Italian, Canadian, German, Japanese. So many of the women in the community were patriotic – until their kids died in the war. Then the anti-war movement came to Boyle Heights."
Many marginalized groups in the 50s and 60s were pushed out of the LA city-center in light of what Boyle Heights community organizer Lydia Avila-Hernandez describes in her journal, The Boyle Heights Landscape, that"racist policies and high rents" prompted Boyle Heights to become a cultural melting pot. While the Los Angeles Times demographic profile on Boyle Heights shows that, in recent years, Latino people make up 94 percent of the area's population, "The Mother of Henry" follows the stories of Italian, Jewish, Canadian, and Latino Boyle Heights residents, reflecting the melting pot that this community served as during the 60s.
"The Mother of Henry" remembers the minority and lower class lives impacted and lost during the Vietnam War that the mainstream historical narratives often forget. Despite some technical shortcomings, this Latino Theater Company production will leave viewers with an enhanced perspective of perhaps the most tumultuous decade of American history, making it well worth the ticket price.
"The Mother of Henry" runs through April 14th at The Los Angeles Theater Center. Tickets start at $20 and are available here.