Mariana, a Cuban and Colombian-American woman living in Miami, is the protagonist of Alexis Scheer’s world premiere play, Laughs in Spanish. But if you were to ask Mariana, the real star of the show would be her mother, Estella. As a larger-than-life telenovela actress, Estella brings some uproarious drama to Laughs in Spanish.
Telenovelas, often called Spanish soap operas in the United States, are literally television novels. Unlike American soap operas, telenovelas typically have a contained story arc with a limited number of episodes, like chapters in a book. Most telenovelas consist of 120 to 180 episodes, and with an episode airing each day, a viewer could watch an entire series within a few months. In comparison, the long-running soap opera “General Hospital” has aired for nearly 60 years with over 15,000 episodes.
Originating in the 1950s, telenovelas were geared towards housewives in Latin America. The storylines were outlandish and sensational with themes like murder, adultery, and incest. The common thread? Almost all of them were Cinderella stories featuring a poor, female protagonist who overcomes all odds for her happy ending.
The first ever telenovela, called “Sua Vida Me Pertence” (Portuguese for “Your Life Belongs To Me”), premiered in Brazil in 1951. Other early telenovelas include Peru’s “Simplemente María” (“Simply Maria”), about a single mother who launches a successful fashion business, and Mexico’s “Los Ricos También Lloran” (“Rich People Cry, Too”), about a homeless woman who moves to Mexico City and falls in love with a wealthy man.
Telenovelas became a family affair across Latin America and Mexico, with entire extended families, young and old, adding the programs into their daily routine. Telenovelas are a staple of Spanish-language network programming and considered a cultural touchstone. It’s a form of connection among the Latinx community and a common conversation piece.
In the 1990s, a telenovela wave swept the world. Mexican telenovelas were exported to countries across North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. For Latin American and Mexican immigrant families in the United States, telenovelas were a powerful connection to the countries and cultures they left behind.
In a study by PBS, it was found that telenovelas are about twice as popular as soap operas (5.7 million viewers versus 2.9 million viewers) in the United States. Plus, those numbers don’t include viewers who enjoy the American adaptations of telenovelas. Popular adaptations include “Ugly Betty,” based on the Colombian telenovela “Yo Soy Betty, la Fea” and “Jane the Virgin” based on the Venezuelan telenovela “Juana le Virgen.”
Regular telenovela viewers will love the comedy and dramatization in Laughs in Spanish, but if you’re new to this cultural hallmark, Laughs in Spanish is the perfect opportunity to dip your toes in the water.
Laughs in Spanish
Jan 27-Mar 12 · Singleton Theatre