When Vanessa Barrantes received the news that she got the role as lead actor in SF State’s School of Theater and Dance production of “Marisol,” she saw it as an opportunity to interpret the storyline of a character’s experience she knew all too well.
“I was so excited mostly because it feels like such a culmination of all the work I’ve done so far in my academic career,” Barrantes said.
“Marisol,” written by Puerto Rican playwright Jose Rivera in 1993, follows Marisol Rivera, a young Puerto Rican, through a journey in a dystopic New York City where disease and darkness flood the streets. In the play, Rivera struggles within her faith and cultural identity.
As a first generation student herself, the senior drew a connection between her life and Marisol’s cultural amputation to fit in the world of academia in order to provide a successful life for herself.
“It was just a parallel with similar feelings I’ve had about being in a university and possibly trying to do my best,” Barrantes said. “I think a lot of first generation students who go into university and want to do well and become successful have that similar feeling and at some point had that pressure on them.”
The production, the first since the theater closed its doors in March 2019, previewed Friday night and will run through Nov. 19 at SF State’s Little Theater.
Following the theme of enduring the tribulations of a new reality, director and theater professor Bruce Avery found the play’s timing fitting to the current circumstances and other phenomena in life today.
“Even though it was written roughly thirty years ago, so many things [Rivera] speaks to, in terms of illness and in terms of people being thrown in a completely unexpected state basically predict what we just went through and what we’re going through with COVID,” Avery said.
While preparation for the play began at the start of the fall semester, the season planning committee decided on the production last spring.
The committee’s purpose is to ensure a varied selection of productions that cater to students’ interest and backgrounds.
The committee, made up of professors in the theater department including Avery, said they had recently become aware that they’d fallen short in covering Latinx issues in recent times.
“We wanted to do a play that would speak to the Latinx community and ‘Marisol’ is one of those great plays … it deals with a Puerto Rican woman who is struggling with her identity,” Avery said.
Still, according to Barrantes, the decision came after a serious balance between the strong depiction of violence for audiences and voicing a message that she considered necessary.
“I felt a lot of responsibility to make sure that she was shown authentically and as a real person and not as a perfect person because she isn’t, none of us are,” Barrantes said.
Once Barrantes figured out her ability to take on the complicated role, she placed her efforts in the minds of an audience she had longed for.
“We’re all so excited, we’ve been working so hard…I think we really just want to go out there to tell the story and live and breathe that world for everybody to have a good time and enjoy the performance,” Barrantes added.
But for students like Alice Demers, who was in attendance at Friday’s preview, the presentation of continued violence was far less dark in a time desperate for laughter.
“The show does have some comedic elements to it and we handle our trauma with humor,” she said. “I think that it’s really important to see something similar to what we went through but be able to laugh about it and laugh about it together.”
This is not the first time student’s have adapted “Marisol” for a college production. In a letter to the University of Southern California’s School of Dramatic Arts, Rivera said he found satisfaction in knowing what his story could inspire in young minds ahead of their 2015 adaptation of the play.
“Very few things make me happier than knowing that my plays are living in the context of university settings where young artists are exposed to some of the best our culture has to offer and the collision of that culture with young receptive, eager and hungry minds that can cause lives to change,” he said.
Four more plays such as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Antigone” can be expected in the coming spring semester.
As each group of audiences take a dip in the depths of “Marisol’s” distress the next few days, Avery said that he hopes to help audience members find empathy.
“There’s a lot of humanity in this so my expectations and hopes are that people walk out feeling a little more empathetic to themselves and to others,” Avery said.