Dominicana Dreamin’: Erlina Ortiz on Latin American theater and her new play, MORIR SONYANDO

Power Street Theatre was founded in 2012 by two Latina Temple alums to showcase the talents of Latin American theater artists. It’s biggest production to date, MORIR SONYANDO, was part of the 2014 Fringe Festival. Unfortunately, the run was cut short by an illness to playwright, actor, and company cofounder Erlina Ortiz. Phindie talked to Erlina about the work and the importance of culturally diverse theater ahead of a one-off remounting of the piece this weekend. [Temple University HGSC Underground: 1755 N. 13th Street] December 6, 2014;
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Phindie: What does “Morir Sonyando” mean, in transliteration and as a title for the work?
Erlina Ortiz:
Morir Sonyando means “die dreaming”. It comes from the traditional Dominican drink Morir Soñando with the ñ replaced with the y as a nod to the bilingual nature of the characters in the play. The play itself is often like a dream, jumping through time and memories with very little linear connections. Most people agree the most peaceful way for one to die would be in your sleep, and that concept is considered in the play.

Phindie: Tell me a little about the piece.
EO: Morir Sonyando is first and foremost a play about family. A mother and her two children dealing with the repercussions of an event that took place many years ago. That being, mom killing dad, an abusive partner. The ‘issue’ of the play is the cycle domestic violence, but ultimately it is about how this family finds a way to make it out of that cycle.

Gabriela Sanchez as Paloma and Erlina Ortiz as Genesis in MORIR SONYANDO.
Gabriela Sanchez as Paloma and Erlina Ortiz as Genesis in MORIR SONYANDO.

Phindie: What inspired this work? How did it come about? Why is it important to you?
EO: When I was in college I was in Lambda Theta Alpha Latin Sorority, Inc. (LTA) which is a community service based organization. Our chapter philanthropy was domestic violence. During that time the issue became very important to me and I learned a lot. LTA along with Insomnia Theatre will be our hosts at Temple University on December 6th. I also became aware of a documentary called Sin by Silence which is about women in prison for killing abusive partners. Hearing these women’s stories really sparked something in me. Power Street is all about giving people voices who don’t have one and I couldn’t think of anyone who’s had there voice stripped away more desperately than an incarcerated woman.

Phindie: You’re creating theater which speaks to and about Latino culture. Why is this valuable?
EO: This is so important! Power Street has been lucky enough to fulfill the first part of our mission which is bringing the Latino community in to see theater. When I look out into the audience after a performance I see such a diversity of cultures. I love it. Many of them are seeing a play for the first time, our talk-backs are often bilingual. Even for those who have seen plays before, they’ve never seen their own people on a stage, or heard their own language. The reactions are so visceral and real, we have a hard time getting people to leave after the show to be honest. Now, we have to fulfill our next goal, getting the theater community of Philadelphia to support our work as well. For those people from the theatre community (the center city crowd) who do come and support, they are often transformed and transfixed by the community around them in the audience that they maybe never knew existed.

A talk back with the audience after MORIR SONYANDO.
A talk back with the audience after MORIR SONYANDO.

Phindie: How important was theater to your Dominican family?
EO: Theater was non-existent to me growing up. My mother only began to know about it and enjoy it when I started doing plays in middle school on a whim because I wanted to be a singer like Mexican-American super star Selena!

Even then most of my family thought ‘theater’ was musicals, because that’s all we really did in my public school. But story-telling is a big part of my memories in the Dominican Republic. Over there, you only have electricity half the day. My fondest memories are when the lights would go out (¡Se fue la luz!) and everyone would gather outside with a little fire and tell ‘chistes’ or funny stories. I used to think my mom didn’t know anything about performance, but now as I’m growing up I listen to her tell stories sometimes and she is a natural dramatic performer. It’s in our blood.

Phindie: How do you handle the emotions which come from presenting domestic violence onstage?
EO: It’s a heavy topic. I think I’m a naturally light-hearted person, people are very surprised after seeing the play that I’m the one who wrote it. However, I think it is balanced with some good humor which is the nature of tragedy. Our director, Thais Flaitt​ Giannoccaro, and actors Anthony Davila, Gabriela Sanchez, and Merri Rashoyan, do an excellent job of keeping things human without it getting too dark to withstand.

Gabriela Sanchez, Erlina Ortiz, and Anthony Davila in MORIR SONYANDO.
Gabriela Sanchez, Erlina Ortiz, and Anthony Davila in MORIR SONYANDO.

Phindie: Tell me a little about these collaborators. What did you enjoy about working with them?
EO: I have had the best team! From the start Gabriela Sanchez [cofounder of Power Street] and I have been great collaborators. We have the perfect balance of friendship, business, honesty, and respect. I wouldn’t be doing any of the things I am now without her by my side. She’s also an amazing actress and I just love writing challenging roles for her. Power Street is very much like a family, when we bring people on board it is a lot less about your talents as much as it is about ‘can you groove with us?’ We wouldn’t be able to create the work we do in the safe space we have without first loving each other.

Phindie: MORIR SONYANDO seems to be a dream that keeps living: you premiered it at the Fringe Festival and you’ve continued to perform it since. 
EO: Yes! Morir Sonyando has been a recurring dream. We premiered at Fringe, at the time I was playing one of characters, but going into our second weekend I got really sick and ended up in the hospital for almost two weeks. It was a rough time, but not to let the dream die, Gabby immediately went into producer mode and knew one weekend would just not be enough for this play. It had been so well received out first weekend, and so many people were disappointed to miss the second weekend. So I suggested some people to fulfill my role and ultimately Merri was the best fit so we remounted only a month later! I had the privilege of being in my play and then seeing my play!

Erlina Ortiz.
Erlina Ortiz.

Around the time of our remount we were approached by Lambda Theta Alpha to do the play for their Founders Week in December! Gabby and I have been very excited to bring this beloved play to our alma mater.

Phindie: What else do you hope to see from Power Street Theatre?
EO: Power Street will carry on carrying on. We have dealt with practically every catastrophe a small company can encounter and we continue to move forward with positive spirits and never ending support from our community. People believe so deeply in us I feel we have a duty to forge ahead and keep spreading our mission. For now, we really want to focus on touring with Morir Sonyando. It is a small show, easy to travel with, but ultimately the message is so important it deserves to be heard. And then.. Who knows! But whatever it is, we are ready.

Phindie: Thank you Erlina!

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