A no-stereotype zone: Christina Nieves in Tanya Saracho's "El Nogalar"
“We keep joking that our characters are taking over our lives,” says actor Christina Nieves, who plays the youngest, Americanized daughter of a magisterial Mexican mother in “El Nogalar” at the Goodman. “Like, I keep making all these snarky comments about being tired and hungry all the time…”
Nieves, 25, describes Anita as “an airhead brat, entitled, rich, spoiled—who also doesn’t have a home and doesn’t feel loved by her mother and, you know, is having an identity crisis and doesn’t know what she’s doing with her life and … just wants to fit in. She’s looking for home, a place to belong. I really latched onto that personally, because of being second-generation Latino. You do have that experience where you’re not really a peer of one thing or another. It makes you feel insecure, anxious, not good enough.”
What resonates most in Tanya Saracho’s new “El Nogalar” (“The Pecan Orchard”)—her updated take on Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard”—is the sense that people are caught in the gears of change and between two cultures, negotiating upheaval and displacement. In Nieves’ and Saracho’s hands, Anita expresses that most poignantly.
What defines Saracho as a playwright, says Nieves, is her authenticity. “She really knows who she is, or is very honest when she doesn’t. She’s just an honest writer, she doesn’t try to clean things up or make it into a pretty picture. She’s just like, ‘This is how I see it,’ and trusts people to work it out for themselves. As an actor that’s exciting. These are real people, they’re three-dimensional, they’re complex.”
A graduate of the Theatre School at DePaul and a junior ensemble member of Teatro Vista, Nieves has worked with Saracho before. And “when she shines her light on you,” Nieves says, “you want to do your best and make her proud. I feel very lucky to be a part of this with her and see her success, have everybody in Chicago and nationally see how great she is. And she hasn’t even scratched the surface of her greatness.”
Growing up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Nieves had two formative experiences. In first grade she was chosen to play Tilly in “an allegorical dental tale called ‘Tilly the Tooth.’ My grandmother made me this huge, fluffy molar costume. I’ve been hooked on theater ever since.” The other experience: “Watching ‘West Side Story’ as a little girl. We used to have an old VHS tape, and I would watch that musical over and over and over again and just be mesmerized by Rita Moreno. She was my idol! For me to be in that play in any role, but to be … Weird! It’s the same character name, Anita! That would be just, like, crazy.”
When I ask whether she feels pigeonholed as a young Latina, Nieves says, “Honestly, I don’t, I really, really don’t. I think I owe that to many other people, like 20, 30 years ago—owe them my gratitude and my freedom. Because I certainly know or have heard about their experience always playing the maid, or the prostitute, or the drug dealer’s girlfriend, or the single pregnant mother. I really haven’t had to play anything like that.”
“That’s why I love working with Teatro Vista—they’ve been real trailblazers in Chicago. When Eddie Torres first started the company with Henry [Godinez] 20 years ago, it was because they were frustrated with playing gangbangers all the time. They were like, ‘You know what? Nobody’s going to give us these opportunities—we have to create them.’ And when I graduated school in 2008, I COULD audition for Shakespeare, for Juliet, for a Greek play, and then turn around and be in a Jose Rivera play. It didn’t matter. I’ve always felt like my talent and the whole of who I am could speak for itself, and not just that I’m Latina.”