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The Phoenix of America Rises Again: Performer Ángeles Romero Re-Imagines the Life of Famous Mexican Nun

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By Josh Inocéncio

Known for her incisive portrayals of historic Mexican women, local performer and writer Ángeles Romero will perform her multimedia solo play, Sor Juana & the Chambered Nautilus, that re-imagines Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a 17th-century Mexican nun and scholar, March 3–11 at MECA. Originally, she conceived the piece for her master’s thesis at Ohio State University in Columbus. But Romero, the current artist-in-residence at MECA, has re-written and re-staged this play, honing in on more intimate details of Sor Juana’s life, such as her contested sexuality.

“I consider myself a Chicana writer. I’ve been influenced by a certain type of immediacy that Chicanas have,” says Romero, reflecting on her artistic identity. “My work is urgent, feels like it needs to be out there. Mainly what I do, what I’ve done, is use historical figures in order to re-contextualize them and bring them into something that’s relevant today.”

Romero’s work, which weaves video projections into stagecraft, is inherently multimedia. And as the content of this play has shifted over the years, so has the use of video projections during the performance. At times, Romero deploys footage to juxtapose two time periods in one play to highlight similarities between the past and the present. Initially, this play featured not only Sor Juana’s narrative but a 21st-century Mexican nun’s as well.

“I was interested in Sor Juana and another nun, Digna Ochoa, who was killed in Mexico back in 2003,” remembers Romero. “I went to Mexico to film, but then I was terrified because I couldn’t do my research. I started to get threats by phone. So I had to drop that and had to stay with the Sor Juana footage.”

But the exclusion of Ochoa’s narrative has not made this piece any less relevant for contemporary audiences. In 1695, a group of priests formally reprimanded Sor Juana for publicly advocating for women’s access to an education. Romero, who also considers herself an activist, sees the urgency in sharing Sor Juana’s story as the pendulum swings backward not only on women’s rights, but LGBT rights, too. Romero was drawn to Sor Juana because, despite the handicaps that patriarchal societies placed on women during the 17th century, she was able to navigate a prosperous intellectual life as a nun. But for many years, scholars have also scrutinized Sor Juana’s sexuality and her suggestive relationship with the vicereine of New Spain.

“[Her sexuality] is not clear, but we had to make a choice,” says Romero. “In the first version, I didn’t want to make this about pushing a concept that didn’t necessarily exist. But in my eyes and for this production, they did have an affair that goes beyond anything, even the body. In one of her memories, she says, ‘If I am a woman, no one will ever verify it.’”

Romero added that, through the writings that Sor Juana wrote about the vicereine, she wanted to explore how “the medium of poetry can bring them together to express publicly what they couldn’t do privately.”

For an artist whose earliest works focused on movement pieces, Romero admits that siphoning the emotions required to portray Sor Juana onstage, among historical figures in other plays, has required a challenging director. Thus, she recruited Dianne K. Webb, the artistic director of Next Iteration Theater in Houston, after watching her work on another project.

“I wanted someone who would be fearless. Someone who would grab me and shake me,” says Romero. “I did movement theater first, so it was all about the body. Now, it’s all raw emotion, and immediate. It’s the biggest challenge of the creative process. And I’m not afraid of vulnerability, I’m just a more objective-driven actress rather than an obstacle-driven one.”

As far as her wishes for this weekend’s performance, Romero is eager to share the piece with a new audience.

“I do believe that the work is incomplete without the audience. The quality of the audience makes all the difference in the maturity of the work,” she says. “My hope is that the audience would leave wishing to have Sor Juana come to life again. That’s why I’m doing this: I want her to live.”

What: Sor Juana & the Chambered Nautilus
When: March 3–11, 8 p.m.
Where: MECA Houston, 1900 Kane St.
Details: meca-houston.org

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Josh Inocéncio

Josh Inocéncio is a frequent contributor to OutSmart Magazine, a playwright, and a freelance writer. A Houston-area native, he earned a master’s degree in theatre studies at Florida State University and produced his first play, Purple Eyes, before returning to Texas last May.
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