Murder. Kidnapping. Thievery. All this evil is crammed into into one 60-minute play -- Family Crimes -- premiering this weekend at Kalamazoo College. The play, written and directed by K College senior Belinda McCauley, looks at three generations of Latina women and the so-called crimes committed by each of them. But this play isn’t about bad people. In fact, it uses their crimes to explore the deep issues that Latina women face in today's society.
Barely 10 minutes into Family Crimes, the character Marta gives her future daughter-in-law, Katie, a proposition -- and describes the message of the play.
"What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done? Secrets create bonds, so what’s the absolute worst, most horrible thing you’ve ever done?" Marta asks Katie.
"You won’t tell?" Katie asks.
Marta assures her: "Family keeps secrets.”
Family keeps secrets. If there’s one thing that quickly becomes apparent in “Family Crimes,” it’s that family keeps secrets. Lots of them.
In this play, those secrets come from three generations of Latina women. There’s the grandmother who killed her husband. The mother, Marta, who kidnapped a baby and raised him as her son. And her daughter, Estela, whose sexuality feels like a crime in a culture that’s still slow to accept.
Between the murder and the kidnapping, Family Crimes sounds a little gruesome. But director Belinda McCauley says the play is actually personal.
McCauley says part of the reason she wrote Family Crimes was to share the stories of the Latina women in her own family.
"So these stories, from my grandmother and my mother, these are stories that don’t really get to be told because of what they involved," McCauley says. "Part of me thought, I need to give these women a voice. I need to tell these stories. Not just for them, but they’re a part of me, and who I am, and how I am here today."
McCauley is quick to add that no one in her family has actually killed or kidnapped anyone. But she points to the relationship between the two eldest members of Family Crimes as something based on real life.
"Mostly, the relationship dynamic between the two oldest characters in the play, the grandmother and grandfather," McCauley says. " Just their relationship dynamic. This strange sort of love-hate relationship where they kind of despise each other but they’re hopelessly attracted to each other."
"Jorge knew how to court a woman, but he did not know how to be a husband," the grandmother tells her granddaughter in the play. "...All he knew of was how to court. Even when we were married, he did not stop courting. Me and [others]."
"Listen to me, Estela," she persists. "Your abuelo did not understand how love works. How marriage is to be.”
"I took those elements from interviewing my mom and her brothers about my grandmother. Asking about their relationship to each other and to my mom and her brothers. And some of the things they told me about them, I took some of those moments and thought, This is a good moment. I’m going to put this in the play."
McCauley adds that through these crimes, she can explore problems that echo throughout the Latino community but aren’t talked about. Those problems include domestic violence, infidelity, racism and sexism. When a character has to deal with all of this, McCauley says, maybe committing a crime doesn’t seem so bad.
"With Marta, the middle woman, her crime of kidnapping this white baby boy, is kind of out of anger and frustration with racism and sexism and the struggles she’s faced as a woman of color," McCauley says. "Living in a world where things are never in her favor. So she takes those frustrations and decides to take a white kid."
Johanna Keller Flores, who plays Marta, says it’s easy to identify with that racism and sexism. She says she sees it all the time as a Latina actress trying to find any kind of theatre role.
"That's what I’m always looking for," Keller Flores says. "There’s been more in the past five years or something. But that’s on Broadway, the new stuff. But on high school and college campuses they’re going to do old things. Old play. Old musicals. They don’t really see brown people in those roles, I would say, necessarily."
But Flores hopes that Family Crimes and other plays can inspire more playwrights, both nationally and in Kalamazoo, to empower Latina actors. With more and more new voices, Flores says she hopes theatre looks a lot more diverse in a few years, even on the high school and college level.
You can see “Family Crimes” at Kalamazoo’s Dungeon Theatre on February 11th at 7:30 p.m.; February 12th and 13th at 8 p.m.; and February 14th at 2 p.m.