A Solo Show That Shines Between the “I” and “We” in “Family”

by Miguel Garcia

Staff Writer

pLAywriting in the city

Last week, the Los Angeles Theatre Center welcomed the West Coast Premiere of Empanada For A Dream, an autobiographical solo show written and performed by Juan Francisco Villa, directed by Alex Levy and produced by the Latino Theater Company.  The solo performance takes the audience on a very intimate, comedic and compelling journey through one man’s discovery of family secrets within his Colombian heritage that will haunt and follow him for the rest of his life.

Juan Francisco Villa from Empanada for a Dream.

Villa’s captivating performance and delivery, which is really the strongest and most entertaining aspect of this show, along with his seamless shifts from various characters in his life – a flamboyant drag queen, to a cool, suave hero-like uncle, to his own mother that while she is loving and sympathetic, Villa’s imitation of her lends itself to more to a villain-like quality (eventually revealing that Villa’s mother possibly made him drink urine as a traditional Colombian remedy to help cope with a stomach ache after eating McDonald’s cheeseburgers – one of the play’s loveliest moments).

The major character arc of Villa’s story is him coming to terms with the secrets and consequences he has inherited as a result of his last name – really the crimes and murders committed by generations of his family all involved and related with the still present problem of international drug trafficking between countries like Colombia and the United States.  A testament to his writing, Villa hooks the audience in with his heartfelt repeated phrase – almost like an anaphora – “I’ve lived to see 32, will I live to see 33? I’ve lived to see 3, will I live to see 33?” (note: slightly paraphrased).

And that is the spark that sets off this, while at times confusing journey due to its non-linear storytelling, very heartfelt story about self-acceptance and coming of age in a family wrapped in darkness.  To reiterate, the best part of this show is Villa’s acting, which will keep audience members enthralled, intrigued, and laughing.  In addition, the show incorporated a very fine, elegant use of lighting by Pablo Santiago and well-executed sound design by Alex Levy, who also directed the piece.  The show could have Villa making more use of the set; there were props and set pieces that were never used or acknowledged, which begs the question, why are they even there? If it was meant for more symbolic purposes, that was not clear enough.  Lastly, while Villa’s shifts in character are incredibly strong, witty, and moving, there are more opportunities in the play where it could be just him and his interior thought responding to his coming of age journey.

Juan Francisco Villa from Empanada for a Dream.

The crown jewel moment of the play is when Villa stands on top of the desk and recites a powerful speech declaring that he is up inthe skies and sees all of New York City , eventually traveling around the world and up in to the heavens rising above the hardships and pain he inherited from his family.  Villa contends, “What my family did has nothing to do with me.  I am responsible for my own actions.” Powerful words that challenge, especially in Latino and ethnic minority cultures, the notion that we can never separate ourselves from our family. Villa’s solo performance successfully conquers this notion.  While we do love our families, at the same time we have a right to become individuals with our own stories and separate destinies.

Empanada For A Dream written and performed by Juan Francisco Villa runs through Sunday, November 18. Show times: Thurs.-Sat. at 8:00pm at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in Theatre 2, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles, CA 90013.  Tickets available at www.thelatc.org. Estimated running time: 1 hour 20 minutes, no intermission. 

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Miguel Garcia is a playwright and producer. He is the Executive Producer of Brown & Out Theater Festival, an annual short play festival celebrating the Latino/a LGBTQ experience.  In 2007, he graduated with an honors degree in English and minor in Theater from Georgetown University. Miguel was born and raised in El Monte, California and lives in Los Angeles.