Pick of the Week

The Importance of Spirituality

If you are like me, Santeria may seem a bit obscure and have you befuddled--that is, even if you've ever heard of it before. But if Santeria does have you curious--or you're interested in religion in general--then an upcoming theatrical performance may just capture your interest.

La Sangre Llama, the newest musical piece by Tucson playwright Toni Press-Coffman, is slated for its debut performance on Monday, Aug. 21. The staged reading is "about Santeria practice in the United States," said Press-Coffman. "The story is about the main character, a woman whose mother is Cuban and father is Puerto Rican," all of whom are involved with Santeria.

Santeria is a religious practice that blends Catholicism with a West African religion, Yoruba; the religion developed in Cuba as a method for African slaves to maintain their religious convictions despite oppression. Press-Coffman said that many slaves "pretended to be practicing Catholicism when they were really practicing Yoruba." Santeria has since become a religion that spans several countries, including the United States.

Press-Coffman--who does not practice Santeria herself--said that her interest in Santeria grew from a series of interactions throughout her life.

"It really came from a couple of things," she said. "I worked in the past with an artistic director who knew several people who practiced Santeria." Press-Coffman said that during her childhood in the Bronx, she was unaware that many of her friends actively practiced Santeria, but when she discovered this later in life, it reinforced her interest in the religion. Her interests in and experiences with the practice of Santeria have manifested themselves as La Sangre Llama.

The main character's understanding of Santeria in her life is detailed in the play's musical performances. Press-Coffman's play depicts the characters and their relationships with one another while exploring the role of religion and spirituality in individuals and their families' lives. And at the core of the piece is "the story of this woman regaining her faith in something aside from material things," said Press-Coffman. "It's really about: Can you actually succeed in life without having a spiritual practice?"

La Sangre Llama centers on how Santeria has taken shape in contemporary American society. "The play is about a young Latino couple who also get involved with Santeria--it's an Afro-Cuban religion--(and) they start talking to their ancestors," said director Eva Tessler. "It deals with how we inherit things from our ancestors that we don't even know are there."

Tessler, who is the artistic associate for Borderlands Theater, has directed more than 30 plays and has been with Borderlands since 1994. The performance of La Sangre Llama is part of the company's Border Playwrights Program. Borderlands Theater is a Tucson organization focused on promoting the rich performing-arts heritage of the Southwest, with a particular focus on Latino/Chicano culture. Tessler hopes that plays such as La Sangre Llama will engage Tucsonans in such cultural exercises.

This will be the first performance that Press-Coffman and Tessler have collaborated on. "I'm very excited about it, because (Tessler) is a very good director and a very good choreographer," said Press-Coffman.

Although Press-Coffman has written many plays and musicals in the past, La Sangre Llama is a new endeavor for her, as she wrote both the script and the lyrics; this is her first attempt to write lyrics, and she is "a very nervous lyricist at that." William Hammond Jr., from San Francisco, composed the music for the piece.

The participating actors are from Tucson and have practiced extensively, but the actual performance of the piece "is with books, so the actors don't memorize their lines," said Tessler. This process, in turn, allows for the future growth of the script.

Press-Coffman stressed that this first performance is a workshop production and that the play is still being developed. Following the performance, all audience members are invited to discuss the piece with her, Tessler and the actors. She said that she is open to all comments and suggestions for the piece. Her goal is to keep working on La Sangre Llama and eventually have it become a full-fledged Borderlands Theater performance.

The venue for the performance is the Southside Presbyterian Church. Why? "Well, because it is a religious play," said Tessler. But despite its religious content, La Sangre Llama is open to everyone and anyone.

La Sangre Llama will be performed at the Southside Presbyterian Church, 317 W. 23rd St., at 7 p.m., Monday, Aug. 21. Admission is $7 general and free for Season Flex Pass subscribers. Tickets are available at the door or through Borderlands Theater. For more information, call 882-7406.