When an older playwright told Cristina Martinez there was too little Spanish language in her play, “Dipped in Honey,” and she should cut it, she went in the opposite direction.
“I remember as a kid, my mom, as a first-generation (American), always told me that we aren’t rich and don’t have many material possessions but the one thing we do have is Spanish. That’s the only thing I can leave with you,” Martinez recalled.
“So, for me, speaking Spanish was a big part of my experience. When I heard this playwright say that the Spanish wasn’t enough and that I should just cut it, I was like, if it’s not enough, then I’ll write more.”
The play is getting a virtual debut at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 16, as part of the SheLA Arts Summer Theater Festival. In its third year, the festival runs from Monday, July 13, to Sunday, July 19, with four plays and one musical. Tickets can be purchased at shenycarts.org/she-la.
Martinez, 23, graduated from Drew University with a BA in Theatre in 2019 and has been working on “Dipped in Honey” for the past several years. It recently won the university’s Robert Fisher Oxnam Award and was part of the Latino Theater Company’s 2019 Summer Play Reading Series.
The play started out as a conversation between two friends who were looking at the stars. Since then it has evolved into a bilingual surreal poem about three children and their parents. It is set in Los Angeles and centers on the Latino experience, border issues and children’s loss of innocence.
Martinez said it was the voice of her main character, Luna, who kept drawing her back to the story. It started as a single scene, but she kept writing and rewriting it.
“Each time I went back, it really was the voice of Luna urging me on to write and tell this story,” Martinez said. “There were a lot of things in my own community and that I know that came out in this play. I think unconsciously I put them in and wrote about the community where I grew up.”
Martinez grew up in South Central Los Angeles, and the community was continuing to speak to her as she wrote the play.
Since the play was selected for the SheLA Arts Summer Theater Festival last March, the death of George Floyd and the subsequent protests have put a focus on telling stories of BIPOC. However, Martinez emphasizes that stories like hers aren’t limited to 2020.
“I think it is always time for stories like this,” Martinez said. “Stories that talk about pain and suffering that is currently happening and currently being ignored or most people are indifferent to it, there will never be a time when they shouldn’t be told.”
She carefully pointed out the characters and events of “Dipped in Honey” are relevant no matter what the time, and the way they are unapologetically Latino isn’t going to go out of fashion.
“Right now, diversity is hot,” Martinez said. “But I think inclusion and intersectionality and Black and indigenous people of color and their stories are relevant for today and for the rest of time.”
When she was informed that her play had been chosen for the festival, the plan was still to perform it live. Within a few weeks, discussions started about creating a virtual festival.
Everyone was given the opportunity to walk away, but Martinez took on the challenge because she wanted her story heard by a larger audience.
“It’s been challenging, but it’s also been beautiful to see the way that the story molds around the situation,” Martinez said.
She was 19 when she wrote the first scene of “Dipped in Honey.” Now 23, she said she is confident about the play.
“When I was 19, I was more scared of my voice and of having a strong opinion,” Martinez said. “Now, at 23, (the play) is more grounded and solid in that my voice is clear and the message is clear.”
She was confident enough to brush off a person’s advice to focus on writing in English. That same person told her she should visit New York or London so she could experience more culture.
“I remember thinking, ‘Thank you very much for your comment,’ and just kind of leaving and laughing at the irony of the situation, because I studied in New York and I spent a semester abroad in London,” Martinez said.
She said it was necessary to include Spanish because it is ingrained in the culture of her story’s families.
“I think one of the beautiful things about theater is you don’t necessarily need to speak the same language or understand the language on stage to get the feeling across,” Martinez said.
For example, when “Spring Awakening” was performed with deaf actors, it was very moving even to those who didn’t understand ASL.
“That’s one of the beautiful things about seeing actors on stage. The connection can transcend language. We can empathize without fully understanding what someone is speaking.”