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Turn-back-the-clock Time At Plaza

May 23, 1986|VICTOR VALLE | Times Staff Writer

For a moment, it is 1931 in Mexico City again. The Revolution is a decade old, the country's equivalent of vaudeville is soaring and Concha Madre (Conch Mother), a dark-haired, almost matronly figured Mae West drapped in strands of fake pearls, struts on stage to the latest fox trot.

Although Concha and the musical theater she was a part of no longer exist, they have come to life again in "El Pais De Las Tandas" (The Nation of Musicals), an exhibit encompassing 40 years of popular urban Mexican theater that is on display at Plaza De La Raza until June 27.

On tour from the National Museum of Popular Culture in Mexico City and sponsored by UCLA's Chicano Studies Department and Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, the exhibit takes the form of a walk through a metaphorical theater. One enters the foyer and proceeds--after a detour through the simulated streets, bars and suburbs--backstage to the dressing rooms, and exits through the rear of the imaginary theater.

But the theater's naive opulence is too bold to be merely nostalgic. The songs and humor of Mexico's music halls are too mocking, too politically aggressive to hide a nation's hunger for democratic political institutions, said Alfonso Morales, the exhibit's curator.

Rather, Morales says, the show's social and political images attempt a critical evaluation of Mexican history.

The artifacts and narrative, he points out, are mostly the personal memorabilia and oral histories of the performers themselves: two elements that give the show its intimate eloquence. But the exhibit does lack a complete English translation of its Spanish narrative.

Beginning in the 1900s, Morales says, the playful parody of Spanish zarzuelas (light opera) with Mexicanized versions becomes the vehicle for creating a hybrid theater for a new audience of illiterate workers, underpaid bureaucrats and Indians fresh from the countryside.

Actual playbills and posters show how, for only a few pesos, the public could see the tandas --a series of self-contained one-act musical comedies--in one afternoon. But the tandas were more than just entertainment. For those cut off from the European culture of the social elites, the bawdy musicals became a vehicle for inventing a national version of cosmopolitan culture.

With the Revolution of 1910, however, the tandas became a refuge for political criticism in the midst of civil war and brutal political repression. "In such a rigidly stratified society, where only the upper classes were in control, the rest of society had been left out of the political discussion," Morales says, adding that the political humor of the musicals "was a way for the people to force their way into this closed circle and ridicule the rich." Its chief trait, he says, "was a constant desire to mock the most solemn things," sparing neither the government nor the political opposition.

Thus, he says, the rude whistles and wisecracks that characterize this lower-class audience's interaction with the performers became a form of political dialogue in a nation of underdeveloped political institutions.

By the 1930s, Mexico City was surrounded by sprawling suburbs. Morales says the cost and the distance from the uptown theaters produced the Carpas (tent theaters), where the uptown tandas were parodied in a third generation of musicals. The exhibit dramatizes this point with a symbolic tent where visitors can peer through the cracks in the canvas.

Like poor newcomers to the capitol, they are only allowed to see the dancing ladies from a distance, Morales says. "What is left? All they have is watching the striptease of progress through the cracks in the tent. They are the illegals of the spectacle."

A label-covered coffin marks the end of the tandas and the exhibit. "The monopoly of radio and the music of consumerism," "political and moral censorship," the labels read, killed the tradition by 1940. In its place, Morales says, radio, movies and, later, television have produced a popular culture of passivity, sentimentality and the cult of the personality.

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