The two plays are wildly different in both style and substance, but both are set in today’s Miami and both focus on young Latinx women. That’s no accident, says playwright Alexis Scheer, the third-year MFA student who wrote both of them.
“I’m learning the common thread in all of my plays is Latinas in charge,” she says.
In Our Dear Dead Drug Lord, a clique of teenage girls huddle in a treehouse, arguing with terrifying intensity about sex and death and pregnancy…and oh, by the way, trying to summon the spirit of the late Colombian drug-cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar.
In Laughs in Spanish, a Colombian-Jewish gallery owner in a hipster neighborhood deals with a catastrophic art theft with the help of her movie-star mother and a laconic cop, all exchanging spicy multicultural zingers along the way.
Both plays were written by Scheer, a student in the playwriting program run by the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences in collaboration with the College of Fine Arts. Drug Lord played at a small Boston theater last year and got Scheer noticed. Laughs in Spanish opens Thursday at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre (BPT).
The surreal, spooky Drug Lord was produced by Scheer’s own Off the Grid Theatre Company. It helped her land an agent and be named the Improper Bostonian Rising Theatre Star of 2018. The play appears to be headed toward a New York production next season, but Scheer, who’s also just wrapping up a stint as an artistic apprentice at the Huntington Theatre Company, cannot talk about that yet. (“Nothing is signed, it’s still being negotiated, but it looks really good,” she says with a grin.)
Laughs in Spanish, directed by Sara Katzoff, a second year College of Fine Arts MFA directing student, is a comedy set in Wynwood, the uber-hip Miami arts district carved out of an old warehouse neighborhood. (The play’s original title was Wynwood.) Krystal Hernandez plays Mariana, a gallery owner facing an opening-night disaster when she arrives that morning to find all the artwork missing. Second problem: the unexpected arrival of her mother, Estella, a Colombian movie star and a piece of work herself. Estella is played by Jackie Davis, a BPT veteran and founding artistic director of New Urban Theatre Laboratory.
Also on hand, and not as much help as they ought to be, are: Carolina, a painter who works for Mariana, played by sophomore Ireon Roach (CFA); Carolina’s boyfriend, Juan (Adrian Abel Amador), who’s a cop; and Mariana’s assistant Jenny, a white girl from LA, played by senior Madison Findling (CFA).
“She wrote Drug Lord and Laughs in Spanish at the same time—which is pretty interesting,” says Scheer’s mentor, playwright and actress Melinda Lopez (GRS’00), a College of Arts & Sciences adjunct assistant professor of playwriting. “One is so dark and the other so joyful, although they have great points of connections—most particularly they are both really, really funny in a painful, extreme way.”
“A development machine”
As if Scheer was not busy enough, she also has a solo show, Chosen, about a young woman’s Taglit-Birthright trip to Israel, getting a free staged reading on March 24 at the Boston Center for the Arts, as part of its two-day “She Said…” Festival of Women’s Voices.
“Alexis is a development machine,” says Lopez. “I would catch her outside of class, and ask, ‘How’s it going?’ and she would invariably say, ‘Good, I wrote a play this weekend.’”
Scheer was born and raised in a middle-class South Miami neighborhood. Her mother immigrated with her family from Medellin, Colombia, in 1978; her grandfather was a judge there, a tough job in a city overrun by Escobar’s cartel. Her father is a Miami native with roots in the shtetls of eastern Europe. “I grew up in a very intersectional household before we had a word to describe it,” Scheer says. “It’s the Christmas tree with the Hanukkah ornaments.”
In theater, it feels like an opportune moment for young playwrights from outside the dominant culture. Scheer embraces the relatively new term Latinx for people of Latin-American descent who don’t want to be defined by gender. But she jokes that it really wasn’t until she left Miami and came to Boston that she realized the fluid ethnicity of her hometown isn’t the dominant culture.
Laughs in Spanish has its roots in Scheer’s parents’ button factory in pregentrification Wynwood. “I spent many summers at what my parents would call button camp,” she says. “I actually watched that neighborhood transform. It was insane. I knew I wanted to set something there, but I didn’t necessarily want to write about the gentrification. I wanted to daydream the afterlife of this warehouse I spent all my time in, under new ownership, but still being populated by the same kinds of people.”
The play offers a glimpse into Miami’s cultural swirl. The characters are frequently seen code-switching, dialing their Latin-ness up and down depending on who they’re talking to. But this is perfectly natural to them.
“Alexis’ great strength is that she is also a performer,” Lopez says. “So she understands character through the lens of an actor—she is inside the characters as she writes them. She’s also a musician, so she has this incredible timing. Her humor really comes with a feeling like it’s got its own musical score.”
In fact, Scheer has what she says is “a pretty intense background in musical theater performance,” including stage roles around Miami from the age of nine, a playwriting class at a public arts high school, and eventually a degree in musical theater from the Boston Conservatory. She also did voice-over work, including a recurring role as a purple squirrel on Dora the Explorer—she notes that there are children in South America who learned English from her voice.
“And—fun fact—I was in a steel drum band in elementary school, which I always thought was totally normal, but it turns out that was just a Miami thing,” she says.
It took a while before Scheer could write about her own cultural experiences, her Miami things, because she didn’t think hers was the right experience. Usually when we see a Latinx person on stage, she says, they’re marginalized people facing life or death stakes, a border crossing or deportation. Not so in Laughs in Spanish.
“I’m hoping the little speck of revolution in this play is that these people are in charge, there’s no question about their success or the space they take up,” she says. “I can’t write a play about the Wall, I have no experience with that, but I can widen our perception of the Latinx narrative in the United States.”
Laughs in Spanish is a BU New Play Initiative production, produced by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and the BU College of Fine Arts School of Theatre. It runs from February 21 to 24 and February 28 to March 3 at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave., Boston. Ticket prices: adults, $35; BU faculty and staff, $25; seniors, 62+, $25; students with valid ID, $10; buy tickets by calling 866-811-4111 or online here.