Actor/playwright Lisa Ramirez’s new work, TO THE BONE, opening at the Cherry Lane Theatre in September, is a provocative drama exploring the plight of undocumented, abused, and traumatized poultry factory workers.
But the play also offers characters whose courage, humor, and compassion evolved out of Ramirez’s experience interviewing women whose lives the work is based on.
Ramirez already lays claim to creating work influential enough to transcend the theatrical arena: her 2009 solo-performance work EXIT CUCKOO (nanny in motherland)—which explored the role of women who work as “nannies” in New York—offered Ramirez (herself a former nanny) the opportunity to work with Domestic Workers United in New York, converse with legislators in Albany, and experience the thrill of hearing Senator Diane Savino quote her piece on the Senate floor (while fighting for New York’s 2010 Domestic Workers Bill of Rights).
For TO THE BONE, Lisa spent six months interviewing female poultry factory workers in the Catskills of upstate New York.
I spoke with Lisa about the heartache and the humor of the subject matter, her thoughts about American theater culture and the world, and the personal and political issues that inform her work.
Jake-ann Jones (Rail): This is a play with a largely Latina cast, taking on the grim realities of poultry factory workers in upstate New York—yet we feel at the end that we’re witnessing a quiet revolution through the character of Olga. How fulfilling has it been to write the piece and now see it being produced?
Lisa Ramirez: It’s really fulfilling for me to write this because it’s like cracking a code. The plays that have moved me the most in my life have been Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesmen, Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, some of August Wilson’s work, Clifford Odet’s plays. Plays that have—well I wouldn’t call Ruined a working-class play—but there’s something about the heroic in the underdog, the heroic act has always resonated with me.
And that doesn’t mean I’m only interested in kitchen sink drama—I’m actually really interested in combining realism with dance or movement or the theatrical. That’s why I asked Lisa Peterson very early on to work with me. I’m interested in heart-wrenching dramas—but I like to make people laugh first. Like Harold Clurman said, first you need to make them laugh and while their mouths are open you pour the truth in. There’s something very theatrical about Lisa Peterson’s direction, but she always keeps it in reality.
And then, I love trying to figure out the puzzle of how to take something either horrific, or political, or a landmine topic like domestic workers, and create a story that people will be curious about.
Rail: Lynn Nottage’s play came to mind when I was reading this. It has the same kind of extremely painful realities—and yet it manages to give us these moments that feel hopeful. And the women of course, marginalized and in very dark circumstances, and the very strong female lead. So it seemed successful in doing many of the things Ruined was able to do as well.
Ramirez: We’re finding so much humor in the rehearsal room. There’s stuff that I thought was funny but in readings didn’t really land, but now—like Jorge, how he’s just always around, and the competition between Jorge and Lupe for Carmen’s attention. There’s so much humor in it, so that’s been very exciting to watch.
Because I grew up with characters like this. Olga says at the end of the first scene: “‘Who has time to be sad. Huh?’ My mother used to say to me, ‘We have to laugh, Olga. If we do not laugh—we will cry. And then where will we be?’” That’s how I grew up, I grew up very poor; my single mother, my mom was one of the funniest, and is one of the funniest, women I’ve ever met. Just when nothing worse could happen, it’d happen, and then my mom would always make us laugh.
Rail: Do you see the injustices that the women in TO THE BONE face as just par for the course with no solution, or did you set out to write this play to start a conversation that would create change in our laws regarding the protection or oversight of undocumented workers and undocumented immigrants?
Ramirez: It’s always about starting a conversation, but even when I started EXIT CUCKOO I had no intention, and no idea, that I would become involved in the domestic workers movement. It all happened as I was writing it, and I think this play happened as a result of that.
This is to start a conversation, but I never really know where that will come from. I do want to do something at the border for the children, but that’s kind of separate from this; I’m not even sure what that is yet. But I never go into anything with a clear plan of what I am going to do, because then it doesn’t work out.
The more visibility and the more these stories are told, in theater, and not in a documentary style—like in a traditional play, American realism, like Steinbeck and Death of a Salesmen—if it’s in that kind of context, and these people are onstage, and they are the stars of the play and they are the heroes and the heroines, and people who just happen to go to the Cherry Lane are moved in that way, then I think a conversation can be started.
Rail: So your initial impulse in storytelling is—
Ramirez: Always to give voice to communities or people that may not have a voice. I would say in all of my work, even some of my dance theater work, that’s the common thread: to expose invisible things, to expose maybe hidden things. Not that I’m the only one writing about immigration, or that I’m the only one writing about alcoholism, or domestic workers, but I’m interested in exploring work that means something to society.
I’m not interested in writing about last summer at the Hamptons—unless it’s from the perspective of somebody who has to work there or who’s not in the fantasy of that world, who’s in the reality—I’m interested in the reality.
Rail: So, the green card. It carries so much power in the lives of your characters. The ones who have it have a lot more power than those who don’t.
Ramirez: Workers that have their green card are more apt to speak up and demand rights, and they actually have more rights. They may have fears, but they don’t have the fear of deportation. The fear of deportation is always there. For me to even get interviews with a lot of these people—I interviewed men and women and I chose to write the women’s stories—it took me months. Nobody wanted to talk to me.
I did a lot of research. I just kept researching and finding names and Googling names and then I finally contacted two women that talked to me—one who offered to introduce me to different people to talk to. It all had to be anonymous, nothing recorded, no pictures.
So this story is loosely based on interviews with probably 50 women over a six-month period. I went up there thinking I was going to write a Latina version of Of Mice and Men, and I came back completely devastated, because the stories were more horrific than I had even heard in the domestic workers movement. The abuses that were going on, for more than a decade, I couldn’t write. I felt like it was a documentary.
So it took me a long time to mine it and to create. I started the story in the house and I start the play with the joke because it was the Catskills, it was the Borscht Belt, which is where all the comedians were. It’s disturbing to think that this was happening, or is happening, in New York, right in our backyard.
Rail: How do you find the right venue for this kind of work?
Ramirez: The Working Theater commissioned it and they were going to do it, but then they didn’t get the grant they had hoped they were going to get and then they couldn’t do it and couldn’t tell us when they were going to do it. I was devastated, but I kept doing readings of it and pushing it myself.
Then I asked Angelina Fiordellisi, artistic director at the Cherry Lane, after I did the Mentor project last year—where I wrote a different solo show about my brother, PAS DE DEUX (lost my shoe)—if we could do a table read. We did it and she fell in love with it and she said, “I want to produce this.” Angelina has been like a creative mother to me. She’s thrown so much support my way and has made this happen. A lot of people didn’t want to do it. Angelina went on a fundraising thing to get it done. It’s only because of Angelina that this play is being done.
I think sometimes people don’t want to produce work that could be seen as political. I wanted to write a play in the tradition of the Great American Play. So that’s what I set out to do, to write a very big play in two acts, because I hadn’t done that yet. And to me, Latinos are really the new America, so for me it really made sense to go for that milieu.
But it’s always disappointing to me and shocking and I don’t know why, when people don’t want to produce work that is socially relevant. But most people don’t.
Rail: Do you think audiences want to see stories that delve into our socio-political and socio-economic realities?
Ramirez: I think audiences are hungry for humanity, for real stories. We’re hungry for the hero or the heroine’s journey. We are in a crisis point in our world and in the country, and I know that personally I’m not interested in “boy meets girl on Facebook” and a two-character romantic comedy about neurosis.
I want to see something that moves me and reminds me either of my ancestors or of the future. I want to be grounded. I want to be moved. I want to see people writing about things that are happening. Just to do the research for Juana’s new monologue about where her daughter is, it’s heart-wrenching. All you have to do is Google the phrase, “children at the border” to see that there are thousands and thousands of children in limbo. A lot of people don’t want to talk about it though.
But my dance-theater play ART OF MEMORY was about women and how we process memory and trauma, and my one-woman show, PAS DE DEUX was about my brother and his alcoholism, and my own alcoholism, and getting sober. For me, the political and the personal are always closely tied.
TO THE BONE by Lisa Ramirez, directed by Lisa Peterson, runs September 9 - October 4 at the Cherry Lane Theatre. For further information visit cherrylanetheatre.org, or call 212.989.2020.
Jake-ann Jones is a writer/performer and Harlem, NYC native. Her play Death of a Ho is published in TCG's Plays From the Boom Box Galaxy: Theater from the Hip Hop Generation (2010).