I came across Fernanda Coppel’s play Chimichangas and Zoloft two years ago while reading plays for a foundation that honors the memory of my friend and fellow writer, Leah Ryan. The organization’s aim is to support emerging female playwrights with a cash prize and a high-profile reading in New York. I try to parse out my reading for this venture over several weeks but inevitably get behind. Without fail, there are a few crunch days where I pore over a huge stack of manuscripts. I do my best to try to be patient and kind while reading, which is different from actually being patient and kind.
Chimichangas and Zoloft, however, grabbed my attention from the first stage direction; in fact, even the title made me laugh out loud. The play opens with these words: “Lights come up on Sonia, she is 40 years old with circles under her eyes. She packs a duffle bag as she speaks to the audience. The sound of a fart.” I wanted to know why this woman was packing and farting. Not one to hold back, Sonia soon told me almost everything:
What? (to audience) That wasn’t me OKAY. (beat)
What? You think I’m gassy ’cause I ate a chimichanga?
Huh? Maybe it’s because, lately,
vodka tastes like tap water
And my eyes look like a third world country.
OH and smiling, just seems obsolete
My heart feels like a metal weight in my chest
Affecting the gravitational pull of my insides
AND voices of people that died
seem to ring in my ears.
Like an old teacher of mine, who once told me,
“Sonia, youth is walking down a hallway
with hundreds of open doors, and as you get older
and time passes doors close and close …”
AND fast forward to this morning,
I woke up BLOATED after my 40th birthday dinner
’cause I went a little loco and had four fucking chimichangas.
I looked past my panza to see a pair of breasts
That USED to look ambitious on my chest
AND rolled over to see a man
That has these gross gray hairs growing out of his ears,
AND fumbled into my closet to find that my daughter
Gave me a pair of PANTUFLAS for my birthday!
FUCKING PANTUFLAS, I’m 40 not 65, damn it.
This can’t really be how my life turned out, right?
If I met the 20-year-old version
of myself NOW I think she would kick me in the Cho Cho,
so that I could feel SOMETHING, ANYTHING again.
I mean, I’m 40 years old, damn it.
I want to say that with an excited inflection in my voice,
not the pouty tone that mimics my breasts.
I was hooked. The entire play was a delight to read. Though it explored a slew of thorny issues—coming out of the closet, depression, familial lies, and teenage sexuality—it managed to delve into these subjects with a light and assured touch. I also fell in love with the character of Sonia, and I wanted to know more about the person who had created such a funny and deep woman. I was fortunate to meet Coppel soon after at a workshop of her play, The Leak, at INTAR. I was immediately struck by her lovely and open face—it’s impossible not to be. She seemed so happy and vibrant. She was nothing like the knotted and tortured characters in her play. And she was young, very young—25 years young. How could she possibly know what a depressed woman on the cusp of 40 was like?
Sitting with Coppel a few weeks ago at a café in the West Village, she still had that appealing open quality I remembered so well from our first encounter but she also looked very much like a playwright heading into production. She seemed simultaneously full of wonder and full of anxiety. No wonder, Chimichangas will have its world premiere in May on the Atlantic Theater Company’s second stage. And that was not a typo. In a season that offers world premieres by Adam Rapp, Ethan Coen, and John Patrick Shanley, amongst others, Coppel is at least a good decade and a half younger than any of those writers and the only woman of color on the Atlantic’s roster in quite some time. Coppel was born in Mexico and moved with her sister and mother to San Diego when she was three. She is also gay.
Much has been written and debated of late about the underrepresentation of plays by women and minorities on the nation’s stages, and the Atlantic is not known as a theater that has bucked the prevailing trend. I am certain that the number of plays produced by gay female playwrights of color at major theaters is far more negligible. Coppel is aware of this fact, and she is hoping that if Chimichangas is a success more doors will open for minority gay writers at the Atlantic and elsewhere. Christian Parker, the Atlantic’s associate artistic director, wrote to me about this topic, “It’s possible that the subject matter of the play, and the fact that Coppel is such a new playwright in New York, may seem a little outside the box for Atlantic to some people, but [Artistic Director] Neil Pepe and I very specifically set out to keep our audiences on their toes. We work hard, actually, to present a season that is undeniably eclectic in every way.”
Nonetheless, Chimichangas is not your typical Off-Broadway fare, which I view as a very positive thing. In trying to think of something to compare it to, I am hard pressed to find an example. One of Coppel’s favorite writers is John Leguizamo. Her writing shares a similar sharp and bold humor with his, but also has a poetic sparseness that is very much her own. Her style as well as her subject matter is unique. Coppel describes her play as “a story about a mother who has a nervous breakdown on her 40th birthday and leaves her family. While she is gone, her husband starts a passionate affair with another man.” These events unfold through the eyes of Penelope and Jackie, two teenage girls, who are on a parallel journey of self-discovery. Coppel tells me the play is ultimately about all the characters “coming out to themselves.” When I press her about this, she explains that all the characters are forced to face their own truth. One of the compelling things to me about the play is the choices her characters make after they have done this. Nothing is pat or easy.
Coppel’s journey to writing Chimichangas and other plays began at U.C. Santa Cruz. She was planning on studying law, but after seeing a play on campus her freshman year, she went home and wrote one herself. Coppel has been lucky in her mentors and gives them a great deal of credit for her artistic development. One of her teachers at U.C. Santa Cruz, Alma Martinez, encouraged her to apply to graduate school. Coppel ended up at N.Y.U. on a full scholarship. It was there in her final year that she met Marsha Norman. She laughingly tells me that “Chimichangas started as a joke.” Norman asked her class to write the first 10 pages of a play that they did not want to write. Coppel started Chimichangas. She wanted to give up on it, but Norman insisted she keep going. Finally, Coppel fell in love with the two dads in the play and the “joke” ended up becoming her thesis. She followed N.Y.U. with a fellowship at Juilliard, where she has continued to be mentored by Norman, Chris Durang, and Tanya Barfield.
When I first read the title of Coppel’s play, I think I laughed because it was a pairing of two such unlikely things: chimichangas and Zoloft. The Atlantic is an equally unlikely place for this play to debut, but there is so much excitement and energy around this project at the Atlantic and in the theater community, that it might actually be the perfect place for it to premiere. And rather than looking backward at the general lack of plays written by Latina writers presented on New York stages, perhaps one could look at this production as a harbinger of good things to come. Some days a positive slant seems like a more compelling choice. Tomorrow, I could be shaking my fists at the gods of nonprofit theaters, but for the moment my hands prefer to optimistically type. Just call me Polly-anita.
Christian Parker, reiterating the Atlantic’s enthusiasm about this project, tells me, “It’s a great story and reveals Fernanda to be a young writer with a lot on her mind and a really strong voice. We couldn’t be more excited about providing her professional New York debut.” Coppel recommends seeing her play “if you’re bored and feel like spending $45.” I recommend seeing it because she has a completely unique and original voice. And I first realized this after reading so many plays, that I never wanted to read, see, or write another play again. If that doesn’t get you to the theater, I give up.
Chimichangas and Zoloft by Fernanda Coppel, directed by Jaime Castañeda, runs May 23 – June 24 at Atlantic Stage 2 (330 W. 16th Street, Manhattan). For tickets and further info, visit www.atlantictheater.org.