"Sex and the City" legitimized the art of girl talk, proving it could be a highly entertaining and addictive genre. In Chicago, only one theater company has been smart enough to generate an equally consistent chummy vibe.
For 10 years, the women of Teatro Luna have created the kind of exuberant autobiographical shows that are now firmly the domain of the young, attractive and fashion forward -- in which frank conversations about love and sexual mishaps go hand-in-hand with stories about blended cultural identities and contradictory insecurities that make up the Latina experience.
Perhaps the strongest voice to emerge from the ensemble is 32-yeard-old co-founder Tanya Saracho, a major playwriting talent who recently snagged commissions from the Goodman and Steppenwolf.
I've followed Saracho's work for a number of years. She has yet to be produced outside Chicago, but I suspect it is only a matter of time before she breaks through with a large-scale hit. Writers this good don't stay unknown for long.
Her plays -- unlike many of the ensemble-built, docu-collage shows that have defined Teatro Luna's style -- are usually fictional, though grounded in undeniable human truth. For the 2008-09 theater season, Saracho holds the distinction of being one of the most produced local playwrights in Chicago, with three shows on tap.
"Kita y Fernanda" (through Oct. 25 at 16th Street Theater in Berwyn), grapples with issues of class and female friction between two Mexican immigrants in Texas -- one the bratty daughter of wealthy parents, the other the frustrated daughter of their maid.
"I'm interested in people's darkness, and humor in the darkness," Saracho said over breakfast recently, "the humor in the shadows."
Her dialogue has a deliciously familiar sound. "I'm not literary, and I'm not academic, and I don't think like a poet, so my stuff will never be like that. I'm obsessed with how people talk."
Born in Los Mochis, Mexico, Saracho's father worked in customs. "Anywhere there was a port of entry, whether a seaport or a border with the United States, that's where we were." Eventually they settled in McAllen, Texas, 10 minutes from the border. "I mean, when you're a kid, you don't ask about it. And on this side we had MTV and cable."
Her plays reference Johnny Depp, Michael Jackson and My Little Pony alongside the '80s Mexican teen pop group Timbiriche. She spoke of "The Hills" and Kanye West. She has a life-of-the-party personality. Consumerism is interwoven into the lives of her characters because these are the very things that define our lives as Americans.
Saracho calls herself an "Americanized acculturated Mexican." She studied theater at Boston University, and has retained her Mexican citizenship throughout; her status in the U.S. is as a resident alien.
"To me, 'Kita y Fernanda' is very much an American story," she said, "and I know some people are going to think it's a Latina story, but it's about shifting people's paradigms and views of what it is to be American."
Saracho is a triple threat -- a director and a terrific actor, as well -- but it is her writing that is particularly timely. It is nervy and anarchic, sly and funny, and entirely rooted in the here-and-now. She embraces taboo subjects and writes with a bold cheekiness that is very much in the vein of Jenji Kohan, the creator of the Showtime series "Weeds."
16th Street artistic director Ann Filmer says, "I knew right away that I wanted Tanya. I'm in Berwyn, and I'm not clueless -- 50 percent of those who live in Berwyn are not just Latino but Mexican-American specifically."
When Filmer launched 16th Street over the summer, the first production she booked was Teatro Luna's "Machos," which had the all-female cast playing men. The show was a hoot, and according to Saracho, "that's been our mega hit," selling out last year at Chicago Dramatists and again when the show moved to Berwyn.
Opening Nov. 6 is Saracho's second show of the season, "Jarred: A Hoodoo Comedy" (Teatro Luna, once again renting space at Chicago Dramatists), about a Latina who uses the services of a witch doctor to win back her cheating boyfriend.
In the spring, Teatro Vista will stage "Our Lady of the Underpass," about a woman who claims to see an image of the Virgin Mary on the wall of a Fullerton Avenue underpass. In fall '09, Saracho's adaptation of "The House on Mango Street," by Sandra Cisneros, will be seen as part of the Steppenwolf for Young Adults lineup. There's also the Goodman commission she's still working on.
"I'm not a good business person when it comes to my writing," Saracho said when I asked about pursuing television or film work, which has become the lifeblood of most working playwrights. "I have an agent right now in New York, and I actually forgot to tell him that we were opening a play."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times