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THEATER REVIEW: “Kita y Fernanda” is bilingual treat by Mo’olelo Performing Company

Kita and Fernanda are childhood friends united by national origin (both are Mexican nationals living in the U.S.) but divided by class and immigration status.

Fernanda (Gabriela Trigo), the spoiled brat daughter of rich Mexicans, lives with her mother Doña Silvia (Melba Novoa) in a house in the border town of McAllen, Texas. They are legal immigrants; mom is the pill-popping wife of a prominent (not to mention philandering and mostly absent) attorney running for the Mexican presidency.

Kita (Cynthia Bastidas) is the daughter of Concha (Olivia Espinosa), Doña Silvia’s live-in maid. Concha had paid a coyote to get them across the border.

Mo’olelo Performing Company presents Tanya Saracho’s “Kita y Fernanda” through Oct. 21 at the Tenth Avenue Theatre. Seema Sueko directs.

The girls meet as 8-year-olds; Fernanda takes an instant dislike to Kita, but in time they become fast friends. But different life paths and motivations begin to stress the friendship. Saracho follows their relationship into their mid-30s.

Kita and Fernanda share little beyond their national heritage. Fernanda reflects American values rather than Mexican ones; with Kita it is the opposite. Smart and a hard worker determined to move out of the servant class, Kita quickly tires of being Fernanda’s plaything.

Fernanda, the child of privilege, is accepted in gringo society (and will one day marry into it), but will find this as confining in its way as Kita feels limited by the options available to her class.

The play is bilingual – there is much dialogue in Spanish, but careful writing and Sueko’s intelligent direction make most of it comprehensible even to nonspeakers of Spanish. And if the audience doesn’t get it all, that’s part of Saracho’s point: to give them the experience of being an outsider.

Known as “the Chicana Chekhov,” Saracho gives us a poignant slice of immigrant life in the U.S., touching on issues like learning English vs. insulating oneself in a “language ghetto,” fitting in, becoming part of the in crowd. The play is bookended by the 2006 Chicago march for immigrant rights, in which the adult Kita and Fernanda see each other in the crowd but do not connect.

Trigo’s Fernanda is difficult to like – a poor little rich girl with an exaggerated sense of entitlement. But she, too, has her psychological wounds to deal with, and Trigo portrays her with fierce honesty.

Bastidas’ Kita is at once inspiring and heartbreaking as she summons the courage to buck her background and leave the familiar in search of her American dream.

Novoa is an elegant wreck as Doña Silvia, the essentially abandoned wife and mother who takes refuge in pills in order (as Fernanda says) “not to notice that my father had trapped us in this airless place.” David F. Weiner’s spare set certainly gives that impression: it’s sterile, windowless and stifling.

Espinosa plays three utterly distinct roles brilliantly: Concha, Kita’s servile mother; Jessica, a Latina Valley Girl cheerleader (a hoot of an interpretation, if a bit tonally removed from the rest of the show); and pot-smoking activist Chela, who inspires Kita to escape.

“Kita y Fernanda” is a touching glimpse of life on the border, in many senses, and is the last play to be directed by Mo’olelo’s artistic director Sueko before she goes off to Washington, D.C. for a 16-month mentorship with Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage in the nation’s capital.

The details

“Kita y Fernanda” plays through Oct. 21 at the Tenth Avenue Theatre, 930 10th Avenue, downtown.

Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 pm; Sunday at 2 pm.

For tickets, call 619-342-7395 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.