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Playwright Isaac Gomez and Mexican screen star Kate del Castillo give voice to victims of violence in 'the way she spoke'
"There is no better place to kill a girl than in Juárez," says Kate del Castillo in the way she spoke, currently running at Audible's Minetta Lane Theatre. The well-known Mexican actress is making her English-speaking stage debut in Isaac Gomez's solo drama about the epidemic of violence against women in the Mexican city. Under Jo Bonney's direction, she plays some 15 characters, including the mothers of las desaparecidas, missing young women presumed murdered in Ciudad Juárez; a man accused of killing eight of them and even the Virgin Mary.
"This is the biggest challenge in my career for sure," says del Castillo, a veteran of Spanish-language entertainment. "It is physically, mentally and emotionally demanding to live these people every day."
In a meta framing device, she even gets to portray the dramatist, who serves as the narrator of the play that the actress has been summoned to read aloud. That script, Gomez says, is a "verbatim" account of his encounters with real-life people.
Gomez grew up in El Paso, Texas, and knew Juárez as the sister city just across the border where he visited his cousins, got his hair cut and devoured treats he couldn't get stateside. It wasn't until he was attending the University of Texas at Austin that he found out about the hundreds of young women who have been murdered in Juárez since the 1990s. "I called my mom and I was like, 'Mom do you know about these women?'" Gomez recalls. "And she said, 'Oh, everyone knows about them.'"
Shocked and intrigued, he started researching Juárez and its bloody history. His "deep dive" included returning to the city and connecting with people through family and friends for what was, in effect, a guided tour of the horror.
That experience helped turn Gomez into a dramatist. As an undergraduate, he began writing a piece based on what he learned, and he continued to work on it when he moved to Chicago for an internship in the literary department of the Goodman Theatre. His efforts eventually resulted in his play La Ruta, named for the bus that takes women from their homes to the U.S.-owned factories where they work. It is on the short walk to and from this bus that women often disappear. All six characters were based on interviewees, and the show played to some acclaim last year at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre.
Looking back over what Gomez calls the "testimonies" of those he spoke with, he realized he was dissatisfied with his "creative reimagining" in La Ruta. He wanted to use more of their exact words and to communicate his own transformative experience of listening to their stories of violence and despair, hope and protest. Yet he didn't want a piece about missing and murdered women to be performed by a man. So he wrote the way she spoke for a single actress, who does the play within the play and also steps outside of it, giving feedback to the unseen playwright as if he is sitting in the audience.
It was Gomez's idea to cast del Castillo. "I grew up with my family watching the shows that she's been in," he says. "And I knew that she is an activist who's taken risks for her activism. She is very passionate and very vocal about corruption in Mexico, and violence against women."
The daughter of celebrated Mexican actor Eric del Castillo, Kate del Castillo began acting professionally at age 6, and became popular throughout Latin America as a telenovela star. Several of her movies and TV series are on Netflix, including La Reina del Sur, in which she plays a drug kingpin, and Ingobernable, where she's the First Lady of Mexico. She's perhaps best known in the U.S. for her off-screen role helping to facilitate an interview between actor Sean Penn and the just-convicted Mexican cartel leader El Chapo, a fan of del Castillo.
Del Castillo admits that initially, she was afraid to sign on to the way she spoke because "it was a huge responsibility. It was scary. It's still scary! There's nothing but a table and a chair so it's pretty much just me." Also, while she's done screen work in English, this is her first time speaking the language on stage.
But since "Off-Broadway was already on my bucket list" she decided to take a chance. She feels strongly about getting these women's stories out there, and they'll receive an even wider audience when Audible releases a recording of the performance in the near future. "I think it is important for people to know what's going on," she says. "What is still going on."
Top image: Kate del Castillo in the way she spoke. Photos by Joan Marcus.