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Young Playwright Takes Giant Steps Toward Her Dream

December 20, 1990|NANCY CHURNIN | SPECIAL TO NUESTRO TIEMPO

Four years ago, Josefina Lopez was a 17-year-old undocumented high school student living in fear.

Fear of being picked up from her Los Angeles home by immigration officials and sent back to Mexico, where she hadn't lived since she was 6. Fear of being what her parents wanted her to become: a traditional wife and mother.

She wanted desperately to be an actress or a writer, to go to college and have a life of adventure.

She poured all her anger, frustration and longing into a one-act, 100-page play.

And with that play, "Simply Maria, or the American Dream," Lopez did what even the semi-autobiographical heroine in her play failed to do.

She changed her life.

A scant four years after she wrote that play, Lopez is one of the most sought-after Latina writers in the country.

She has only two plays to her credit, "Simply Maria," and her first full-length play, "Real Women Have Curves," but the interest generated in those works would be dizzying even for a longtime professional.

"Simply Maria," first produced by the Playwrights Project at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company in San Diego, was adapted for public television last year. It won a 1990 Public Television Local Program Award for excellence in the children's category.

Last summer, it was staged by Teatro Campesino, along with a one-act play by the company's artistic director, Luis Valdez, at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Los Angeles.

Teatro Campesino also plans to stage a new tour of "Simply Maria" and Valdez's "Soldado Razo" in the spring of 1991.

Teatro de la Esperanza staged "Real Women Have Curves" last May, and it ran through June at the Mission Cultural Center in San Francisco. The play was recently optioned by Warner Bros. and Lopez is adapting it into a screenplay.

In her spare time, she shuttles to the Disney Studios, where she has been asked to pitch movie ideas. She negotiates with other theater companies interested in her work. She is working on two new plays, one about a Latina super woman and another about an older Maria in a contemporary Latino romance mocking "Latin lover" stereotypes. The play is tentatively titled "The Hot Senorita Meets the Latin Lover, or One Thing Led to Another."

And in the fulfillment of yet another dream, last year, during Thanksgiving vacation, she got her "green card"--her permanent residency card.

If it seems like a lot for a 21-year-old woman to process, it is. She has gone from having no money to having the promise of a lot of money to the realization that she has less than she had counted on.

Buoyed by promises of royalties from "Simply Maria," she acquired a few credit cards. She was so in debt recently from the costs of flying, tuition, phone bills, postage, rent and daily living expenses that she could not afford to fix her broken word processor or buy a typewriter. She finally got a computer as a gift from her brother.

Partly because of financial problems, Lopez is taking a year off from college--she attended UC San Diego last year--and plans to apply next year at a school specializing in film.

But Lopez is not worried. She has made trouble work for her before and she can again, she said.

"When I was a senior in high school, I was so confused," said Lopez, a resident of Boyle Heights. "But if it weren't for that confusion and anger, I couldn't have written 'Simply Maria.' I took all the bad that happened to me and I turned it into 'Simply Maria,' and it's been my ticket."

Still, she has moments of doubt.

"I love what I do. But on the opening night of 'Simply Maria' (in Los Angeles), there were too many people and it did feel like it was too much too soon. I kept saying to myself, 'Am I really ready as a writer?' Sometimes I feel like maybe I'm a phony. I think I still have a lot to learn, and in the meantime I'm hanging by my nails. I have so many bills, and it's really scary and it drives me nuts."

Lopez may be worried about her future, but prominent directors sing her praises.

Valdez has called her "one of the most brilliant young voices writing for the theater in this country today." Edward Albee said Lopez's first play "tells the truth with irony and humor and no holds barred."

Rosa Maria Escalante, Teatro Campesino's education director, played the mother in "Simply Maria." She marvels at how Lopez's intensely personal work has been able to touch universal chords.

The critics have sometimes been less than kind, in part because Lopez's talent, as she will acknowledge, is not that polished.

But audiences don't seem to care.

"Real Women Have Curves," her story about a 24-year-old Los Angeles factory owner who is feverishly sewing 100 dresses so she can afford to hire a lawyer who will get her a green card, got mixed-to-negative reviews. The show, however, sold out every night but one.

Although the story is fictional, the feelings that inspired it are not.

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