Edward Gallardo's "Women Without Men," a dramatic work now at the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts, explores the trials and tribulations that women face on the home front when men go off to war.
"It's a tragicomedy about Latina women caught in a society that's in transition, in chaos," said Charles Bazaldua, the play's director. "For Anglo women, World War II was a time of emancipation, but for most Latinas it was harder. They were also fighting and questioning staid cultural roles and traditional codes of what was considered acceptable behavior for women."
Set during World War II in a New York City garment district sweatshop, Gallardo's play focuses on six Latina housewives (of Puerto Rican, Cuban and Argentine origin) working at the Betty Blouse Factory. They are Dona Orquidea, the factory supervisor, and her daughter, Soledad, whose husband is fighting overseas; the unmarried Carlota and her niece, Ramonita, whose husband is missing in action; the older Lillian, and Tessie, a young war widow.
"What attracted me to the play was the image of my mother from my own home life in Texas," said Bazaldua, a veteran BFA director and actor. "My mother was a working mother. Despite the fact that women were often given less education and opportunity, they have this resolve that keeps them going and ultimately makes them successful."
Miriam Tubert, who portrays the unbending Orquidea, admits it has been difficult making her character sympathetic.
"Orquidea says things like, 'These are hard times, but we are ladies and we have a code by which we act,' " Tubert said. "Later, she says, 'Women don't go to the movies or the USO by themselves.' These Old World values have become outmoded in a world where Latinas have to work instead of staying home, having babies and being housewives."
A successful stage reading of Gallardo's play last year at BFA led to its current full-scale production. The play was honored in 1989 as the best script of the New York Festival Latino, part of Joseph Papp's Public Theater Festival. ("Simpson Street," another work by Gallardo, a Puerto Rican playwright, is in production at Los Angeles' Nosotros Theater.)
Bazaldua said he is pleased that all six cast members are bilingual and perform their roles in both the English and Spanish versions of the play.
While some might think that the play's World War II setting does not speak to today's Latina generation, actress Elise Hernandez, who portrays Soledad, is quick to point out otherwise. "Just look at the war in the Persian Gulf and the number of Latino (military) volunteers from local communities like La Verne Avenue. They recognize what war does to families, especially the extended Latino family. In watching this play, that element of truth strikes home."
Bazaldua playfully added that there is not a generational gap either. "In selecting the incidental music that is heard in the show, I picked 'Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy' by the Andrews Sisters. It's funny but a younger member of the audience recognized it right away as a big dance hit for Bette Midler in the 1970s."