Director Jerry Ruiz gestures while reading notes for Cebollas

Cebollas: When a Road Trip is a Family Journey

Jamie Ann Romero smiles onstage during Cebollas rehearsal

Jamie Ann Romero in Cebollas, Colorado New Play Summit Reading. Photo by Michael Martin Photography

This world premiere work by New Mexico playwright Leonard Madrid drew loud laughs from audiences at the 2022 New Play Summit. The tagline says it all: Three Sisters, four wheels, four hundred miles, and one dead body.

From a comedic premise, a heartwarming comedy-drama emerges when three Latina sisters embark on an unexpected drive, Albuquerque to Denver. Their mission: to get the body of the youngest sister’s lover back to Denver before his wife finds out how and where he died.

Cue the family secrets, sibling grudges and endless highway. Are we there yet?

It’s pedal to the metal as well-drawn characters bicker and laugh all the way north on I-25. Landmarks scroll by — Bernalillo, Santa Fe, Huerfano, Colorado Springs, Castle Rock— along with family memories and secrets. The sisters’ distinct personalities enliven the proceedings and sharp dialog keeps the play speeding along. While humor fuels the trip, serious issues test the relationships.

Director Jerry Ruiz said the play is “about healing the rift in their family.” Specifically, “the sisters must tell (youngest sister) Yolanda the truth about her origins and help her move on.”

As the miles tick by, “there is the sense of a new beginning, a rebirth for the family,” through the fact of the baby that very pregnant Yolanda is going to have.

“The more we’ve worked on it beyond the witty banter, there really is a lot of real human material in there that gives it the heft of a drama and also roots the humor in something very real and very emotionally understandable.

“I’d call it a comedy-drama,” Ruiz said.

The story, while outrageous, is actually quite universal, concerning family, siblings and legacy.

“That’s the hook,” Ruiz said. “You don’t have to have driven a body across state lines to appreciate family dysfunction and the legacy of your parents and to grapple with the choice they made. I think we all can connect to that in some ways.”

The question at the outset is, are these women going to come back together and be in each other’s lives or will they be pulling in different directions?

The production aims to be immersive, to seemingly invite the audience along on the trip.

“We are going to have a car, or part of a car, onstage,” Ruiz said. Audiences will see the characters getting in and out of the shell or skeleton of the vehicle. Meanwhile Ruiz will use projections to create the sense of motion and travel.

Cebollas projections designer Alex Koch and an assistant have made the actual drive, Albuquerque to Denver, with a video camera to capture the view from out of their car.

That road trip footage will be projected onto various surfaces on and around the set, with road signs and landscapes changing as the story progresses to create an immersive environment. The Singleton Theatre is “a great space for it,” Ruiz said, “very intimate, so we’ll feel very close to the actors and also get that sense of travel.”

The casting is “definitely all Latina, you want to have that authenticity. The cultural representation is important,” Ruiz said. Two of the actors return from the New Play Summit reading, the third is from New York.

The culture of New Mexico figures prominently in Cebollas.

“There are some terms in there that I didn’t even know, and I’m a fluent Spanish speaker,” Ruiz said. “They are so regional. Regional slang and Spanglish.”

A lobby display is planned to familiarize audiences with the unique culture and language of that area.

For instance, Ruiz said, “’ombers,’ is it Spanglish? I’d never encountered this word. Leonard said it’s like when you’re in trouble, it’s very contextual.”

Or the expression “burque,” which Ruiz learned means Albuquerque. “It’s like shortened Spanish slang. These are things even Spanish speakers might not be familiar with. We’ll try to give that context.”

Citing the Denver Center Theatre Company productions of Laughs in Spanish (2023), American Mariachi (2018), FADE (2016, which he directed) and others, Ruiz said the Denver Center “has a pretty good track record of producing Latina and Latino playwrights and other playwrights of color…. They feel that mission to represent different facets of the community.”

He credits the company with figuring out a sustainable model at a time when theater generally is struggling. “They are continuing to serve their established audience but also inviting new folks in, and then picking shows that are culturally specific but that can speak to a broader audience. It’s a balancing act.”

The fact that Cebollas rose through the process of the New Play Summit is a sign of that commitment to keeping the pipeline fresh and inviting in new playwright voices. Since it began 18 years ago, the Summit development process has introduced 68 new plays, more than half of which were picked up as full Theatre Company productions.

“To see a play go from being read for the first time at the [Summit] to a full production two years later, that’s actually a quick turnaround in the life cycle of plays in the American theater,” Ruiz said. More typically he has worked on plays for six or seven years before they were produced.

“To have that reading, to get people excited, then turn around and do it the very next year— that’s a wonderful opportunity.”

Jan 26-Mar 10, 2023 • Singleton Theatre