A legendary collaboration deserves a great creation myth.
So, Carmelita Tropicana and Marga Gomez declare (via press release) that they met “in Paris after being expelled from L’Ecole de Mime for talking.” Of course, when queried during an interview, these unlikely candidates for mime school admit—OK, it happened in Texas, when they were both thrown out of the same bed-and-breakfast for being “loud Latina—like J.Lo said, ‘Let’s get loud.’ ” Returning to the legend later (“We hoped you wouldn’t come back to it”), they finally ‘fess up. They met at a Queer Latino Performance conference. In Texas.
They just can’t get too serious most of the time. Gomez cracks wise in both her stand-up routines and her autobiographical monologues. Tropicana (a/k/a Alina Troyano) is a comic persona who emerged into Downtown theater from the ’80s East Village club scene. Two Latinas, two lesbians, two laff riots. Working together seems pre-ordained.
The new piece they’ve come up with, Single Wet Female (at P.S.122 through October 20), uses the twisted-roommate shocker Single White Female as a starting point. Gomez plays Margaret, the woman seeking a SWF, and Tropicana is the nut job who moves into her bathroom. But the first thing to be said—maybe the only thing—is that this situation is not what it seems. Beyond that, Gomez and Tropicana are adamant: “Don’t give it away!”
Of course, a few facts leak out. “We’re totally playing against type,” Tropicana announces. “Because Marga plays high femme, and I’m a low butch.” Reluctantly, Tropicana reveals that she has just purchased orange coveralls for her character, while Gomez frets, “Gotta get French cut nails.” Drag-king-about-town Murray Hill appears on videotape as her cheating boyfriend. They also promise $40 wigs and “simulated nudity.” Yes, it’s the lesbian version of straight people.
Or maybe it’s the Latina version of white people. Gomez plays a “struggling Caucasian music supervisor.” A blond, no less.
“Oh yeah, I’m white,” she says.
“Make sure you put that down,” adds Tropicana. “We’re white.”
Et tu, Carmelita? The National Songbird of Cuba? “White?” I ask.
Tropicana clams up: “I don’t want to give it away.”
But I’m still trying to get a sense of their direction. So Gomez summarizes the piece this way: “It’s about losing yourself, and everything that can happen with that. Even murder.” Then they burst out laughing.
Gomez and Tropicana remember when they first saw each other perform, in both cases at WOW, that “home for wayward girls” specializing in work by lesbians. Gomez appeared in the mid ’80s at the old storefront WOW (on 11th Street), where Tropicana saw her do a stand-up routine about coming out. Gomez was never a regular there, since she lived in San Francisco, but she first saw Carmelita at the funky theater version of WOW (on 4th Street) in 1986, doing one of her ensemble pieces, Memorias de la Revolucíon. Creation myths notwithstanding, they met then, briefly, but were on different paths.
Carmelita Tropicana was one of the most thoroughly realized personas born in the ’80s club scene, a Latin bombshell of great self-possession, a Miss Loisaida who quite possibly never gave up the crown. She reveled in her accent, her heels and boas, her cross-cultural metaphors and sly sexual innuendo. The woman (Troyano) underneath is so grounded in the character of Carmelita that improvising comes naturally.
Her post-club theater work often addresses this livin’-large Cuban identity with absurdist humor. In Chicas 2000, for example, Carmelita is sentenced to prison when found to be a carrier of the “chusma” gene, which causes loudness and tackiness. Ironically enough, her performance with the least chusma is Milk of Amnesia, which chronicles a return to the Cuba she doesn’t really remember. (She left at age seven.) Tropicana won an Obie in 1999 for Sustained Excellence of Performance.
Gomez is a native New Yorker, born with the entertainment gene. Her mother was a Puerto Rican dancer; mambo, Afro-Cuban, exotic—she did it all. Her father was a Cuban comic and would-be impresario, who struggled to open a Teatro Latino even as the growing popularity of television was shutting down variety theaters everywhere.
“It’s no secret,” Gomez confesses. “I’m a little bit assimilated. I was discouraged from speaking Spanish. My mother didn’t want me to get a suntan. So I’m definitely not ‘down.’ I can’t reel off in Spanish, and I can’t dance. So I am always trying to get more creds. I’m like the little lost gringa.”
She’s crafted an acclaimed monologue for each of her parents. She usually works solo but did spend a couple of years in Los Angeles trying to break into showbiz. In Sphere, for example, she’s the computer expert who serves Dustin Hoffman a plate of muffins. As a breakout role, it isn’t much. As comedic material for one’s solo performance, it’s gold: “And then I am killed, right after jellyfish attack Queen Latifah. Why? Why do the women of color always get killed by jellyfish first?”
This came from her program notes for jaywalker, a piece about how much she hated L.A. “Suddenly I realized, why am I going back there?” She moved to New York in 1999.
At the performance conference where they met in 2001, Gomez and Tropicana performed on the same night and decided to try dramaturging each other. Tropicana was working on a piece about Elián González (still in progress) and Gomez developed The 12 Days of Cochina, a Christmas show about “sex, desire, and faith-based charities.”
The feedback sessions worked so well they decided to collaborate. While writing SWF, they watched chick flicks and thrillers, adding homages to a number of films about female relationships or obsessions: Vertigo, Persona, Diabolique. “And one more,” says Gomez. “but we can’t tell you what that movie is. Because that would give it away.”
On the day the set is installed, Tropicana reports, “So much pink is there that you die. It’s a great look for that super-high-femme role-playing.” She adds that they’re both excited about doing some acting, but she’s still reluctant to fully describe her demented roommate character, Cahmy. “We’re restricted by the parts we play,” says Tropicana, mysteriously. “So Cahmy’s as restricted as Margaret may be. But in different ways.”
Their director, David Schweizer, explains: “Cahmy crawled out from under a rock.” Then he helpfully describes the piece itself as “a sunny mixture of film-noir satire and goofball socio-sexual performance.”
I ask the two performers if the Carmelita known and loved throughout ye olde Loisaida will show up at all.
“Yeah,” says Tropicana.
“Or else there would be trouble,” adds Gomez. “I mean, people come to see Carmelita.”
Tropicana clarifies: “There’ll be an inkling of her at the very end. Maybe.”
“We’re various people at once,” says Gomez. “I mean, we don’t want to . . . ”
Tropicana finishes the thought: ” . . . give too much away.”