Refocus Project Year 2: Sarita by María Irene Fornés

In María Irene Fornés’ 1984 musical “Sarita” — presented in a rare staged reading free online through October 16th as part of Roundabout’s Refocus Project — we first meet the title character (portrayed by Darilyn Castillo) as a 13-year-old parochial school student in the Bronx in 1939. She asks her classmate Yeye (Gabi Campo) to divine whether Julio really loves her. Yeye works her way through a deck of cards, one card at a time: He does love you, Yeye tells Sarita, after she demands three quarters from Sarita as payment for her clairvoyance. “Ok, but what was he doing with her?”  — she spotted him with another girl, and he was aroused. He was just thinking about you, Yeye assures her. It’s a charming scene, made all the more so when they break out into song.

But “Sarita” turns dark quickly – in the next scene, Sarita, now 14, has become pregnant — and what initially promises to be a light musical becomes nearly operatic. That is more in Fornés’s story than in composer Leon Odenz’s score, which is lively, eclectic, Latin-tinged, accompanied by piano and bongos – although there is an aria by Castillo that is astonishing in its force and its feeling. The aria is a climax to a roundabout story that unfolds in 20 short scenes over 90 minutes, taking place from 1939 to 1947. The louse Julio (Diego Guevara) stays in Sarita’s life despite her many efforts to escape him. When she tries to commit suicide by jumping off the Empire State Building, a stranger named Mark (Kyle Selig) saves her, and then marries her — but she cheats on him with Julio, who then tries to blackmail her. Desire and betrayal lead to frustration and depression and anger, and ultimately to tragedy.

Based on this staged reading, “Sarita” might not have been the next of Fornés’s 50 plays that I would have thought to revive, having seen two in 2019, the year after she died at the age of 88, that felt far more original to me: “Promenade,” and “Fefu and Her Friends.”

But let me defer for a moment to Caridad Svich, who singled out her reading of “Sarita” as not only turning her on to Fornés for the first time but also bolstering her own decision to become a playwright:

“Here was a writer crafting a tale of class, power, sensuality, and love in a manner that was fresh, rigorous, playful, daring, and surprising. The short scenes felt like little spells. Each turn in a scene was unexpected and breathless in effect.”

And she is not alone. “Sarita” is one of the three plays in Year 2 of Roundabout Theater Company’s Refocus Project.  Roundabout launched the digital theater series last year, in the midst of the pandemic and of the reckoning after George Floyd’s murder, to spotlight plays by Black playwrights that deserve more attention, in association with Black Theatre United.  (I reviewed the 1940 plays, “I Gotta Home,” written by Shirley Graham Du Bois, best known now as W.E.B.’s wife.) This year, Refocus refocuses on Latino playwrights, in partnership  with Pregones/PRTT.  The two others available through October 16: THE OXCART by René Marqués, and EL CORRIDO DE CALIFORNIA by Fausto Avendaño.

The idea is to bring attention to works that the Project believes belong in the canon as classics, but have been ignored.

Roundabout has my thanks not just for continuing the Refocus Project, but for doing so in a way that both acknowledges its origins and adjusts to changing times: “Sarita” was staged in person in front of a live audience in June at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater. It’s that live performance that was recorded and is being presented as digital theater, available in English with both Spanish or English subtitles.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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