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Cleveland Play House brings family, love and music to the stage in ‘American Mariachi’

Hillary Taylor
Cleveland Play House
Cleveland Play House kicks off its 2022-23 season with "American Mariachi" under the direction of Henry Godinez.

A Mexican-American family soothes a dying relative with music in “American Mariachi,” running now at Cleveland Play House. The comedy drama kicks off CPH’s 2022-23 season, the first since the departure of longtime Artistic Director Laura Kepley.

The play is directed by Henry Godinez, who has also helmed productions in Denver and Chicago. He said it’s been a pleasure working with CPH’s Interim Director Mark Cuddy.

“I was a big fan of Laura Kepley's. I think she is a brilliant artistic leader and brilliant director. And I feel the exact same way about Mark. So, I think that Cleveland Playhouse is very fortunate to have an interim director like Mark Cuddy here,” he said.

Ideastream Public Media’s Kabir Bhatia: What’s it been like bringing live Mariachi music to such a historic venue?

Godinez: This is an incredibly historic theater. It's 107 years old. If people don't know that, it's one of the great, great regional theaters of the United States. I said to the company the other day, at our first rehearsal, that ‘107 years ago, I don't think the founders ever envisioned actors on the stage that looked like us [and] sounded like us.’ We're playing this kind of music -- the beauty of America is that the possibility is always there for the future, for change, for who we become as Americans, which is always changing.

Bhatia: Tell me a bit about what happens in the play and how that figures into the American experiment.

Godinez: It's basically about a Mexican-American young woman in the 1970s whose mother is suffering from dementia. One day she discovers that… when she plays an old record, her mom became incredibly lucid and started singing along. And then she sets out to find a way to recreate that song. The only way she knows to do it is to actually put together a mariachi band. So, basically, it’s a play about female empowerment of a young woman wanting to set new traditions, create new traditions and struggle and fight against the status quo. It's fundamentally a story about family, about love, about tradition and the struggles that I'm willing to bet every family has had to deal with. I think of it as the perfect anecdote for us coming out of COVID-19, because it is so heartwarming. It's funny, the music is uplifting and inspiring and it's heartbreaking. And even though it is steeped in in the particulars of Mexican-American culture, it is so universal. There is no one that doesn't see themselves in this story.

Bhatia: Are you hoping that universality is the kind of thing that will break down the barriers that we're seeing in society more and more?

Godinez: I hope so. That's such an awesome, astute observation. That is my hope: That this play can begin to function as the sort of bridge that I think we as Americans need, you know, because before being Republicans or Democrats or independents or whatever, we're Americans. And even before that, were human beings. If we could really find the compassion to understand that the things that we share are much, much more prevalent than the things that divide us, that's where hope lives. I'm an immigrant. I came to this country from Cuba. My family came when I was very little, and because we came to not live under the Castro regime, I grew up extremely patriotic and believing in the American Dream. We came with nothing. And because of the belief in that, and my mother's strength, we were able to really find opportunity here. And to me, that's what America is about for everyone. I mean, if someone like me can get to the point where I can create theater as a living, that's pretty awesome. And that's what America is all about.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.