The Mummified Deer
A Play by Luis Valdez
An elderly woman in her 80s is hospitalized with a variety of illnesses. Examinations and tests reveal that she carries a mummified fetus within her and has carried it for 60 years. Her family is astounded by the revelation that calls into question all of the relationships and events that they had taken for granted. This is premise of The Mummified Deer, a play by Luis Valdez and currently being performed at El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista, California.
Before the play began, Mr. Valdez addressed the audience and told us that it is in preview status, meaning that it is being edited and changed throughout the run. He wanted the audience’s feedback because that was one way for the play to “mature” as he put it. It actually took root as an idea back in 1985, and was first performed in 2000 at the San Diego Repertory. His comments suggested that script changes were being made on a very frequent basis, which must prove challenging for the performers. Sound and light cues are still being worked out. No playbills were distributed, so I cannot tell you who all the players were, however Alma Martinez is Mama Chu and Lakin Valdez (son of Luis) plays the deer dancer.
The Teatro itself is a former fruit-packing shed whose interior has been painted black. Various lighting, sound, and special effects equipment dot the ceiling. We heard that 100+ people had attended the previous evening’s performance, apparently a sellout. I don’t know if we approached that level or not, but the audience was a mix of people, all ready to appreciate this new work by Mr. Valdez. Having been to small theaters in Chicago, I can appreciate the efforts of a smaller company that is focused on delivering a good story, not on providing a glittering venue. The Left End and Bailiwick theaters come immediately to mind and they are smaller than the Teatro.
The play occurs in two acts (I think) and the time period is 1969. There is one intermission, so the entire play runs about 2 hours. In the first Act we are introduced to Armi, the granddaughter of Mama Chu. Armi opens the play with a brief description of her relationship with her grandmother, who is a formidable Yaqui woman. The action swiftly moves to the center of the stage, with Mama Chu lying on a hospital gurney. The gurney remains in the center throughout the play and Mama Chu’s activities occur around it. This segment moves between reality and unreality as Armi, her aunt, uncle, and cousin renew their relationship while Mama Chu confronts the ghosts of her past.
Armi is a graduate teaching assistant, pursuing a Master’s degree in Cultural Anthropology at Berkeley. Her cousin, who says she graduated “early” from high school is actually pregnant and dropped out. Armi’s aunt, and the cousin’s mother, was Mama Chu’s favorite daughter and favors color coordinated outfits. She is unimpressed by Armi’s educational achievements. The uncle is the only surviving son of an alleged 20 children. Armi’s own mother, named Augustina, and father are dead, and there are allusions that suicide was involved. Augustina was also the family black sheep and Armi appears to be her successor in that role. Radicalized by her Berkeley experiences, and participating in the boycott in support of the farm workers, Armi is attentive to any racial or ethnic slight by the white medical staff caring for her grandmother. Her relatives are less eager to object and simply want Mama Chu to get well. Confronted by the news of the mummified fetus they are ready to authorize surgery to remove it, while Armi refuses, stating that Mama Chu should make the decision. On top of that, the family must come to grips with the fact that the presence of the mummified fetus for 60 years means that Mama Chu was unable to have children. Since the fetus is older than any of them, how did this family come about?
While the relatives bicker, Mama Chu engages in a dialogue with the ghosts who come calling. Among them; a deer dancer whose dancing causes her much physical pain (and which she protects from hunters), a former husband, and Augustina with the man she married. Of all these, it is the deer dancer who stays most often with her, and when the first act finally ends he appears to be either reborn in some way or is prevented from being reborn, resulting in a long guttural outcry before the theater goes dark. I admit I couldn’t tell which way it was supposed to be.
The first act introduces the characters, and the second act moves forward with revelation upon revelation about Mama Chu. A woman who has survived much trauma and abuse, she has never told her children the truth about their origins. Armi, determined to learn that truth, begins with her uncle and moves on to her aunt. What is revealed is not just their origins, but also the stories of the ghosts haunting this woman who endured so much to find a better, safer place for those in her care. Mama Chu relives these moments in her life and finally provides the final revelations, including the identity of the deer dancer. The play ends after a brief polemic by Armi, 30 years later, about the Yaqui people followed by the death, at 114, of Mama Chu. In those 30 years the family has stayed connected, and Mama Chu is at peace with her ghosts.
This is not a long play, as plays go, but it is quite active. While primary action is occurring with one character we also see activity by other cast members, which is sometimes disruptive for the viewer, especially when you have to look around the head in front of you to see what is going on. There is some ribald humor during the sequences involving the clown and it is quite funny. The play also uses music of the era to open various scenes, including Santana and Tina Turner.
The ensemble, especially Alma Martinez, draw the characters well. Alma in particular is mesmerizing since her character is the focal point throughout the play, going from loving mother nursing a baby, to a tigress protecting her daughter from assault, to a woman on a respirator who appears to be at death’s door. The aunt and her own female offspring are hilarious, while the uncle tries to walk the middle ground between his niece and his sister, with mixed results.
It helps to understand colloquial Spanish as spoken by Chicanos, and also the culture due to some references that were difficult for the uninitiated to comprehend. During intermission, I spoke briefly with a Teatro staffer who felt that my lack of Spanish or knowledge of cultural references was not necessarily a drawback since the play has great appeal to women. He is right about the appeal to women in that the play does focus on Mama Chu’s story and Armi’s struggle to understand her family history, her grandmother and the family’s relationships. These are stories that are universal in their reach and can transcend the cultural differences that might otherwise be barriers. The stories told through the eyes and experiences of people who have given up everything for an opportunity to put darkness and evil behind them and seize the hope represented by the Estados Unidos.
Because it is in preview, this is not what the final play will look like. Were I to edit it, I think I would look for a way to cut down on the side activity that occurs when one character is the focus and cut out the lecture at the end. The story is a compelling one, and anything that would help keep the focus on Mama Chu’s history and its impact on her family would probably be welcome. Not being a playwright, I am at a loss to give more specifics than that. The first act moves more slowly than the second, and probably needs the most attention. Otherwise, I am very glad I got to see it. Mr. Valdez has a distinguished résumé and I am pleased at having the opportunity to see this new work. I hope to see it again when it is no longer in preview.