Bete comes off as such an outrageous Latina diva that she could be a drag queen’s campy creation, especially since she’s portrayed by a man, Arturo Luis Soria. She compares herself to Madonna and Meryl Streep; drinks too much; trash-talks her three husbands, and tells us about their penis sizes; comes up with ridiculous titles for books that she could write but knows she never will; gives everybody nicknames, most of them insulting; the ones for her children involve different body parts. She calls one of her daughters “my appendix. They’re there but they’ve stopped serving a purpose and if they explode, you’re fucked.”
But she calls her son Arturo “my heart.” “Ni Mi Madre” is Arturo Soria’s solo play about his mother.
The hour-long monologue is more complex than just a comic portrait, although it’s certainly funny. It’s threaded through with subtly poignant stories illustrating issues of race, class, nationality and gender. It’s also something of an autobiography, the story of a queer boy’s coming of age, seen through the eyes of his mother, who is not always sympathetic.
Bete (sounds like Bet-chi) is not just outrageous in the admiring, even adoring, way that people often use that term. The stories she tells of the way she treated her child are often outright outrages, far from funny. They are tales of teasing: Just for laughs, she pretends she’s not his mother when she opens the door – “You should try next door” – and slams the door in his face. They are tales of violence. We learn of a custody battle, in which little Arturo testified in court, wanting to live with his father (whom Bete nicknames the Ecuadorian Commie.)
“Arturo thinks I was a bad mother to him. I wasn’t bad. He was a fuckin’ lunatic,” she says at one point, and then illustrates with anecdotes. “I’m not an abusive mother; I’m Brasileira, there’s a difference,” she says later. “Being a Latina is a birthright to beating your child.”
It’s one of the strengths of “Ni Mi Madre” that we are asked to understand Bete’s behavior – and ultimately to forgive it — because of the way her own mother treated her; she resented her daughter’s lighter skin color, and sent her away to live with relatives at age 15.
This spirit of generosity is evident not just on stage but in the playwright’s voluminous program note, which begins: “I must first and foremost thank my mother, Elizabeth Cristina Alencar Pizzoli Gobler Soria Frias, for not only living the life that I have bastardized on this stage, but for also enduring my retelling of it over and over again for the past decade and a half. All of this would not have been possible without her. Você é minha inspiração.”
I saw “Ni Mi Madre” two years ago as part of the NYC Rave Festival at the Clemente (a few months before Soria made his Broadway debut in the cast of “The Inheritance.”) There are some changes in this higher-profile, higher-budget production at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, which is being presented both in person and livestreamed through September 19th.
The most obvious change, of course (since I attended in person) were the proof of vaccination, the mask-wearing, and (an extra step that, interestingly, I didn’t have to do for Broadway), the filling out of a contact tracing form.
Two years ago, Soria came on stage dressed only in his underpants and dressed into the frilly white dress of his mother before our eyes. Now he enters already half-dressed in (costume designer Haydee Zelideth’s more elegant) frilly white outfit…and ends up 60 minutes later dressed only in his underpants.
In place of the narrow stage full of the kind of orange-colored crates common in college dorms, Stephanie Osin Cohen’s set at Rattlestick is an elaborately detailed altar to Iemanjá, the goddess of the sea in Brazil’s Candomblé religion, who is referenced throughout ritual-like moments in the play (although, as someone pointed out to me, the oil portrait at the apex of the altar does look suspiciously like Cher.) The floor repeats the black-and-white pattern of the famous sidewalk in Ipanema, where Bete grew up. Director Danilo Gambini tries to take advantage of this large set in a way that didn’t always work for me. At one odd moment, Bete talks about how the Ecadorian Commie attended Arturo’s dance recited “with his entiiiiiiiiiiiiiiire family” — and while he’s saying “entire” he exits through the door stage left and re-enters through the door stage right. (It’s as if somebody said “we paid for these doors; we should use them.”)
This was the exception, though. For the most part, the staging stayed simple. If anything, Soria’s performance was toned down – the right choice – as was the ending.
“Ni Mi Madre” ended with a punchline two years ago. This time, it ends with a prayer.
Ni Mi Madre.
Written and Performed by Arturo Luís Soria
Directed by Danilo Gambini
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (either in-person or livestream) through September 19
Run Time: 1 hour
Tickets: $40 ($25 Student/Artist/Senior/Disabled Sept 1 and 12th, pay what you can)
Dramaturg: Nahuel Telleria
Set design: Stephanie Osin Cohen
Costume design: Haydee Zelideth
Lighting design: Krista Smith
Sound design: Kathy Ruvuna
Production stage manager: Katie Young