By MARK PEIKERT
If you ever feel Off Broadway is stuck in a cultural rut, then you'll welcome Chimichangas and Zoloft, now at the Atlantic Theater Company.
Written by Fernanda Coppel, the play follows Latina teenagers Jackie and Penelope on their quest to bring home Jackie's runaway mother Sonia, who's been binging on the titular products. Meanwhile, Jackie and Penelope's fathers ogle each other on the sly, making this the rare show to explore sexuality and mental health in the Latino community.
However, Chimichangas and Zoloft almost didn't happen. When she was a graduate playwriting student at NYU, Coppel began the script for professor Marsha Norman. The assignment? Write 10 pages of a play you wouldn't want to write. Eager to start the real work of her thesis, Coppel dashed off the first 10 pages of what the Atlantic is now producing.
"Marsha really liked it and made me keep writing," Coppel says. "It was all about writing without any limitations, and I really figured out my voice through this play. I've told Jaime [Castañeda, the production's director], like, 50 times that I never thought this play would be produced. And that's why I think it's talking about things that aren't talked about, because I didn't have it over my head that this would be at such and such a theatre."
Much has been written over the years about the lack of diversity in the theatre community, and Coppel, a Latina lesbian, is happy to lead the charge in breaking through those barriers.
"I do think it's important to identify as both [a lesbian and Latina writer]," she says. "I think the play speaks to both audiences as well, because there's just so few a) lesbian writers with lesbian characters and b) Latino work with Latino characters being done on Off-Broadway stages. When [the Atlantic] told me they were interested in doing the play, I was very surprised. I thought it would be done at Intar or something, but it's not, which I think is awesome and will hopefully open the door for other artists of color.
Still in her 20s, Coppel has occasionally been forced to defend her decision to write a depressed, fortysomething female character like Sonia. "For me, age will always come into question, especially because I'm a woman," she says without rancor. "But I think I have the authority to write this stuff. I was raised by all women, and so it's just truths that have always been around me. And I think it's a good thing that people ask me about the credibility or that that character even exists in the world, because there aren't a lot of roles for Latinos like that."
The rest of Coppel's plays---including one about a cross-dressing female cartel leader in Mexico---have a similar fearlessness and out-of-the-box quality. Castañeda, for one, is a fan of her voice. "The maturity of both the content and then the style of her writing is pretty unique," he says. "I just always loved the courage for a young writer to be able to write these plays, not knowing if they'd ever land and just courageously writing them anyway. At the end of the day, we're just happy this play has a home. Even for the title alone!"
Mark Peikert is the New York Bureau Chief of Back Stage
Photo by Joan Marcus