Beloved YA Novel About Teen Girl Life Transfers to Stage

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Some people read novels and visualize them as fully formed movies. Playwright Isaac Gómez sees them as plays. At least, that’s what happened when he read the 2017 young adult novel, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sánchez. Gómez ended up adapting the book into a fast-paced play, now in a limited run at Greenway Court Theatre on the campus of Fairfax High School.

The book and play are a deeply honest look into the life of a Chicago teen, the daughter of undocumented immigrants, grappling with issues of identity, sex and grief after the death of her older sister.

Gómez was drawn to the book cover’s illustration of the back of a head with a trensa (long braid), “a significant cultural marker for Mexican women.” Then he read the first sentence: “What’s surprised me most about seeing my sister dead is the lingering smirk on her face.” He bought the book immediately.

“It felt like something I would say, or something I had heard. It felt like the way the women in my life talk,” Gómez says. “At the time, I was in rehearsals for my play La Ruta at Steppenwolf. They have a subsidiary series for young adult works, so I pitched it and they read it, loved it and found Erika through Instagram. Erika agreed to an adaptation.”

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter opened at Steppenwolf in February 2020; the run was cut short by the pandemic. It had a subsequent run at Seattle Rep before coming to Los Angeles at the urging of Greenway Arts Alliance’s Co-Artistic Directors Whitney Weston and Pierson Blaetz. Through their Greenway READS program, more than 600 LA Unified School District students are reading the book, working with Greenway Arts Alliance’s teaching artists and seeing this production. On weekends, it is open to the public.

Greenway’s Weston notes, “The Latinx population in the Los Angeles Unified School District is over 70%, and this stunning play speaks to, and is, the story of so many students we serve with our Greenway READS program.” For many of the students attending, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is their first theatrical production.

Gabriela Machuca as Julia (center) and ensemble in I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter at Greenway Court Theater. Photo by Nick Graves.

Of the adaptation process Gómez says, “The book is cinematic in nature and I’m excited for film adaptation [to be directed by America Ferrera]. It’s in first person, as solo shows are structured, with [main character] Julia talking to you. This play is essentially a solo show with an ensemble that fills out the world.”

Gómez came to LA to help shape the production, working with director Sara Guerrero founding artistic director of Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble; she and the ensemble are artists-in-residence at California State University of Fullerton. She says, “Isaac wrote a guiding note in the script about it being Julia’s world, taking place in the mind and life of a teenager. So the play leans into and away from reality.

“It was great to have Isaac to help us with the tone and work with the cast. With our protagonist, Julia, I said let’s take out the air, come in hot, not be precious. We have these lasting moments where we can pause, we can breathe.”

The fact that the play would be seen by an artist essentially of Julia’s peers informed Guerrero’s direction. ”I kept the audience in mind, but I didn’t want to talk down to them. I kept thinking about how we feel at certain ages. Sometimes adults invalidate youth: “That’s not love…” We see them as children. It was important to be thoughtful about how people feel at any age, especially to validate a young girl’s experience and feelings.

“Twice the script addresses consent. I really appreciated that, especially right now with rights being taken away, books being banned, access to education that enriches us being curtailed. Where do kids get to build their own opinions, deal with their feelings?”

They add, “Something that isn’t talked about enough is the adultification of the children of immigrants. We are put into adult roles really early in life. You see Julia essentially having to parent her parents. Language is a big part of it, especially if your parents don’t speak English or have limited English proficiency. Education is part of it when your parents can’t help you with your homework. You have to figure things out on your own. Julia is the first in her family to go to college; so was I.

Gómez says they write “to heal myself, to make sense of what hurts me. What I learn in the process is that healing is ongoing, not linear, and with no end point. When I invite an audience to see a play, it invites their healing, too. When someone says they saw themselves in the story, oh man, that’s such a humbling feeling because when they feel they’re not alone, in turn I feel less alone. It’s a beautiful exchange of energy.

“I think it comes from being specific in your stories. I focus on character and myself, because the closer I get to the truth of what’s happening in my story, the more likely the audience will see themselves.”

The creative team for I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter: author Erika Sánchez, playwright Isaac Gómez and director Sara Guerrero “

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter runs through March 3. For tickets and more information, click here.

Laura Foti Cohen

Laura Foti Cohen has been reviewing theatre prolifically for five years at the Larchmont Buzz, a local Hancock Park-area website and email newsletter. She’s a playwright herself; her plays have been produced by NEO Ensemble Theatre. She's a new member of Theatre West.

Laura Foti Cohen

Laura Foti Cohen has been reviewing theatre prolifically for five years at the Larchmont Buzz, a local Hancock Park-area website and email newsletter. She’s a playwright herself; her plays have been produced by NEO Ensemble Theatre. She's a new member of Theatre West.

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