A History of Fluidity
Mexican-American Identity in The Mathematics of Love

math-4The Mathematics of Love is a dance with memory—personal, cultural, and universal. Written by playwright and TAPS Artist-in-Residence Cherríe Moraga and directed by Misha Chowdhury, this spiritually engaging show is an exploration of the levels of the changing Mexican identity through history. Sitting in the audience waiting for the show to begin, I watched the actors. Already in another world, part of their own time and place yet still wholly present in ours, they shuffled around the stage completely in character before the seats were filled or the lights had even dimmed. This sense of presence, this fluidity of time and dynamic spirit is the essence of Mathematics.

In the first second we find out most of what we need to know about the show. We are staring at the lobby of the historic Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, dreamy 1950s dinner party music plays in the background, and the whole set seems enveloped by a wine-colored glow. A smartly dressed Mexican-American woman sits daydreaming in a purple leather arm chair, as her bearded, White husband sits clacking away at a clunky ‘90s desktop computer upstage. That’s the first 0.2 seconds. In the next 0.8, the lights melt from pink to blue, and all is surreal. A passing maid says something in an indigenous language—we have travelled in time.

And then, suddenly, we’re back.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is our show. Trippy? Yes. In the best way possible. I am not usually one for artistically ambiguous shows, but this one has depth. The opening second that I just described tells a lot. First of all, it’s beautiful. The romantic set, surrounded by rose petals and glamorous hotel furnishings, is just the tip of the iceberg. The language is lovely, featuring beautiful writing and sprinkles of multilingualism, not to mention the rich bouquet of melodious accents that flutters across the stage throughout the show. The story itself is also quite gorgeous. Exploring the many levels of Mexican identity and Mexico’s cultural development throughout its colonization, Mathematics grapples with questions of cultural memory through the use of Peaches (that Mexican-American women in the chair, played by Rose Portillo), who is suffering from dementia and finds herself travelling through time. There is a strong sense of magical realism reminiscent of Latin American literature like One Hundred Years of Solitude or Like Water For Chocolate.

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The show is, importantly, very fluid. Just like the highly dynamic Mexican identity during and after colonialism, time and personal identity are subject to change in Mathematics. At one point Peaches is a mother of grown children, and the next moment she is a young slave girl working for the demanding Cortes’ mistress, Malinxe (Erika Yanin Pérez-Hernánde), in New Spain. Soon after, Peaches is back to her original (at least as far as we know) self, but the should-be ancient Malinxe is at the hotel computer, filling out her online dating profile. Characters mold in and out of shape, changing, or perhaps just becoming themselves in another life. In the world of this play, nothing and no one is bound by time. History and the present are ever changing, and ever-involved.

Humor and drama are integrated gracefully, with instances of acute emotional depth along with a healthy selection of dirty jokes. At one point an entire toilet is wheeled onto the stage, which should be reason enough to check this show out. I know what you’re thinking, but no, don’t worry—nobody uses the toilet. Disappointed? Never fear! They flush one of their friends down there! Once again, stop worrying. She’s dead (and not a fish). If this doesn’t spark your interest, then I’m really not sure what you want and I don’t think you do either.

One of the greatest gifts of this show was its performers. Thanks to its mystical plot, the cast has the challenge of weaving in and out of time and characters at any moment, and each and every one of them handled it beautifully. Most notable has to be the magnificent Rose Portillo (Peaches), for whom I actually found myself saying “wow” aloud on several occasions (to the annoyance of my neighbors, I am sure). Playing a playfully disapproving, occasionally bitter, neurotic Mexican-American mother with dementia, Portillo subtly loses her marbles for us on stage. Whether being transported literally to another time and place (in which she suddenly plays an Indigenous slave girl), or being mentally transported through her memories (in which case we as the audience have no access into her mind’s eye beyond her trembling body), she delivers. Her performance will truly give you goosebumps, and, by the end, will most likely bring you to tears.

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The title of this show, The Mathematics of Love, is the one element that does not fit in with its fluidity. Mathematics seems to play a very small—or nonexistent—role, but maybe I’m just seeing what I wants to see (i.e. no math). The title really adds to the mystery, which is one of the most interesting aspects of this show. Some of the plot ambiguity is revealed to the audience by the end of the show, to a satisfying extent. For example, just what is Malinxe’s relationship to Peaches? Even better though, is that other questions are left unanswered, leaving us to sit with our uncertainty and perceive the puzzles as we will.

An emotional and fascinating study of Mexican identity throughout colonialism and into the present day, The Mathematics of Love is an exhilarating jumble of cultural and personal memory, acceptance of one’s past and oneself, and fluidity of time, selfhood, and heritage. Before Malinxe returns to the past, she say to Peaches, “I don’t attempt to rewrite history, but I count on you to remember like this. Relieved of history’s burden.” Mathematics will carry you off in a whirlwind of red petals to a place that once was, and perhaps, in some way, still is.

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