There’s nothing more exciting to a theatergoer than being in on the world premiere of a jaw-dropping show destined to become a big hit, and I’m happy to report that Los Angeles has one opening this week. Sleep with the Angels, opening Friday, May 27, is an important and wildly entertaining work written by Evelina Fernández and directed by her husband José Luis Valenzuela, co-founders of the Latino Theatre Company. The show stars their daughter Esperanza America with music performed by her husband Robert Revell.
I saw Sleep with the Angels in previews and it continues to resonate. Although the company was in the throes of finalizing the show for opening night, playwright Evelina Fernández was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions.
The Larchmont Buzz: I was blown away by Sleep with the Angels, from the script, acting, direction and original music, to the production values, including the costumes, special effects and that great set. Can you give a little historical perspective about what led up to this production? As a co-founder of the Latino Theatre Company, how would you say this show fits into the company’s history?
Evelina Fernández: Part of our company’s mission is to address important issues of our time. Over our 37-year history we’ve addressed these issues through a Latinx lens and put those stories on the stage.
Sleep With The Angels is one of those stories. It’s about a young, modern family confronting today’s truths; divorce, teen angst, gender curiosity, immigration. It tells the story of a family trying to be a family today and that fits right in with our history.
TLB: This is a family affair, with the playwright, director, lead actress and musician all related! Tell us about the process of developing the show together: how long did it take and how much did it dominate your lives?
EF: Well, it’s certainly dominating our lives right now! With all of us in rehearsal and with my daughter and son-in-law being new parents, I am juggling rewrites, babysitting my grandson, and trying to make rehearsal. The creative process begins with the script which I developed on my own, but inspired by the relationship my daughter had with a young boy (now grown) she used to take care of as a side job. We had a virtual reading in 2020, more script development, meetings with the director (my husband), casting, rehearsal, and more rewrites throughout the rehearsal process as I learn what the actors bring to the roles.
TLB: There are some very powerful and honest moments, with insights about, as you say, relationships, child-rearing, personal integrity, gender identity, immigration and assimilation–among other subjects! How important was it to you to get people thinking about some or all of these issues?
EF: Many times, our specific experience as Latinx and Chicanx people is overlooked in the mainstream even though we experience life just like everybody else. We experienced the AIDS crisis, the Great Depression, divorce, love, insecurities, career choices, gender identity, etc. We experience it all. We fought in all of the wars and we are suffering through this COVID pandemic. Our life experience is not limited to immigration issues and gang violence. As a playwright, it’s important to write Chicanx characters in all of our human complexities.
TLB: Juana is a magical character, in the Latin American tradition of magical realism, with a touch of Mary Poppins. Where did she come from and how did you develop and embody her as a character? What makes her so magical?
EF: Juana’s magic is rooted in Mexican folklore. Her remedies come from our myths and beliefs in natural powers and saints. We believe that a red thread on the forehead can cure the hiccups or that tying a saint to the leg of a chair can help you find a lost item or help you find love. We light candles to cleanse or to bind the heart. But more importantly, Juana is based on the millions of women who leave their countries and their families to come and work taking care of our families so that we can work. We pay them to make our lives easier and they, in turn, send money to their families to make their lives easier. It’s a crazy and unfortunate situation that women around the world find themselves in and it says a lot about the lack of progress in this country when it comes to women and family care. But we approach all of this with lots of humor and irony, with lots of music and lots of heart.
TLB: The family felt very real, sometimes struggling to accept and support each other despite an obvious foundation of love. What did you draw on to paint such a deep and moving portrait of a flawed but enviable family?
EF: As someone who has been married for over 30 years, I know the complexities of family dynamics and I draw from my real-life experience in most of my work. But I see young families struggling to stay whole in a society that doesn’t necessarily support that. Our Latinx values are rooted in a deep family love. So, the family in Sleep with the Angels is struggling to hold onto those values and at the same time experiencing marital, teenage and gender identity issues. Love doesn’t always win.
TLB: Although Sleep with the Angels isn’t a musical per se, music plays an integral part and is woven throughout the show. The songs–and their performances–are so beautiful and moving. Who wrote the songs? What role do you see music playing in the story?
EF: Music is an integral part of the Latino Theater Company’s work. After all these years, we have figured out what our audience likes. They like to laugh; they like to cry and they like music and dancing. All of our pieces include music in one way or another. In some cases, we begin with the music and in other productions we find the music along the way. In Sleep with the Angels, I wrote some original lyrics and then my daughter and son-in-law, Esperanza America and Robert Revell, rewrote or wrote new lyrics and wrote original music for the songs. So, I wrote some lyrics and they wrote some and Robert wrote the music.
TLB: Sleep with the Angels is in English, but the occasional Spanish-language dialogue added a deeper level. Why was it important to include untranslated Spanish?
EF: Authenticity is important. There is very little Spanish in this production and some of it is translated in the dialogue. But there are some things there are untranslatable. Some things just don’t make sense or land in English.
TLB: How has producing theater in Los Angeles changed over the years, especially since the pandemic?
EF: Well, this is our first production in over two years. So I’ll have to let you know about that.
TLB: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
EF: This play is about a Latinx family, however their daily battle to love and overcome the challenges we face each day as Angelenos, is universal and relatable to everyone regardless of your background. I hope to see you at the theater!
Sleep with the Angels, from the Latino Theater Company, runs May 27 through June 26 at Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring Street (that’s one block south of the Last Bookstore, so plan accordingly). Tickets are $48, except for $10 Thursdays and are available here. $5 parking with validation is available at Joe’s Parking just next door at 530 Spring Street (bring your ticket to the theater). Proof of Covid vaccination and masking are required.