Two-handed plays featuring Latinos have their place this year at Destinos, Chicago’s fifth annual Latino theater festival. Among the festival’s 13 productions are Teatro Vista’s “Enough to Let the Light In,” a psychological thriller about two women in love, and American Blues Theater’s “Alma,” a tender mother-daughter drama. In Visión Latino Theater Company’s “Sancocho,” Destinos’ latest show focused on female relationships, two sisters cook a family recipe together as their conversation winds through shared memories, past traumas, and long-held secrets.
Written by Christin Eve Cato and directed by Xavier M. Custodio, the play takes place in the cozy kitchen of Caridad (Antonia Arcely), a middle-aged Puerto Rican American who skillfully chops vegetables for sancocho – a traditional Latino stew – while wielding an ubiquitous wine glass in one hand. His sister, Renata (Amber Lee Ramos), 25 years younger and pregnant with her first child, comes to visit and discuss their terminally ill father’s will. As they chat, the smell of stew ingredients wafts through the front rows of the audience, creating a pleasant multi-sensory experience.
The two sisters used to be close but now have a more distant relationship, and the family history that unfolds throughout the play explains why. Caridad was forced to grow up young, learning to cook for her father while her mother worked long hours, and continued to raise her own children, mostly alone. Renata, on the other hand, felt the weight of her parents’ expectations as they pressured the bright girl to be the first in the family to attend college; she exceeded their hopes and also enrolled in law school.
Arcely and Ramos are pretty compelling as sisters with a big age gap between them – a weird dynamic in which the eldest often plays a role somewhere between parent and sibling, while both siblings can experience facets very different from their real parents. Caridad’s irreverent humor and practical approach to life contrasts with Renata’s analytical and overachieving tendencies, but it’s clear they love each other despite their differences. Their mother never taught her youngest to cook, but Renata hopes to pass on Puerto Rican culture to her child, so Caridad teaches her sister to make sancocho. She also gives relationship advice to Renata as she worries about whether her husband is truly “the one”.
Eventually, the conversation veers into darker territory, including discussions of past verbal, physical, and sexual abuse within the family, and Renata expresses her fear that her baby will inherit her generational trauma. Despite being the golden child, she admits she resented her father for the way he treated her mother, but felt powerless to push back. “I never agreed with their way of being,” she says of her parents, “but I accepted it reluctantly.”
Caridad shares the pain she suffered from the colorism their father directed at her; he preferred the lighter-skinned Renata and the blond, blue-eyed son who died before either daughter was born. As if that weren’t enough for one evening, Caridad shocks Renata by telling her that they also have a living half-brother, their father’s child from an extramarital affair. This complicates their father’s will plans, as a third brother represents another possible beneficiary of the estate.
While some elements of their story are culturally specific, anyone with a messy home life will find points of connection with Caridad and Renata, whether in their sibling rivalry or the traumatic memories that haunt them. The inspiring core of the piece is what the sisters do with all this baggage — they have difficult conversations, deal with their generational trauma, and find a path to healing. The stew they cook throughout the evening serves as a metaphor for this process, as the ingredients are sliced and ground to create a meal that Renata describes as “soul healing”.
“Sancocho” is one of the last productions to open during the 2022 Destinos Festival, and it’s fitting that the show is about two strong Puerto Rican American women. This year’s festival is dedicated to the late Myrna Salazar, co-founder and executive director of the Chicago Latino Theater Alliance, the organization that co-produces Destinos with the National Museum of Mexican Art, the Latino International Cultural Center and the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance. . Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Chicago, Salazar has championed Latin artists and theater companies from Chicago, the United States and Latin America. Those who continue her work surely make her proud.
Emily McClanathan is a freelance critic.
Review: “Sancocho” (3 stars)
When: until October 30
Where: Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park Road
Tickets: $30 to $60 at visionlatino.com