Play explores connection between life and death

Caleb Slinkard / The Transcript

Norma Lilia Ruiz Cruz portrays "Catrina" during Robert Con Davis-Undiano's "Day of the Dead: A One-Act Real Life and Death Play" Thursday in the Reynolds Performing Arts Center. The play was designed to expose a non-Latino audience to many of the cultural and historical aspects of the Day of the Dead celebration.

In a packed Reynolds Performing Arts Center on the OU campus, Robert Con Davis-Undiano's "Day of the Dead: A One-Act Real Life and Death Play" gave the audience a chance to come face-to-face with a rarely discussed topic: death.

Directed by Diego de la Espriella and starring Norma Lilia Ruiz Cruz (with José Francisco Morales providing humorous set ups for each scene as Professor Trujillo), "Day of the Dead" was specifically designed to expose non-Latinos to the holiday that holds a special place in Latin American culture. While the celebration has become more and more popular in the United States, it's sometimes misunderstood as the "Mexican Halloween."

Davis-Undiano's play explored the celebration's cultural and religious origins, beginning with a scene featuring Coatlicue, the Aztec mother goddess of life and death.

Cruz' character, featuring sugar skull makeup, emphasized the connection between life and death, the dual nature of our existence and ultimate demise. It was unnerving to watch her point out individuals in the crowd and discuss their manner of death; an impressive performance by Cruz, who was able to bring a character to life with no set or music to back her up. But that was part of Davis-Undiano's goal: in American culture, death is often a taboo topic.

"Americans don't really understand the Day of the Dead," Davis-Undiano, the executive director of World Literature Today and English professor at OU, said. "This play lays out what it's all about. It's very personal and goes very deep, discussing how life and death relate to each other. America is a very Puritanical country, and we are very squeamish to talk about death. But as the popularity of the Day of the Dead has grown by leaps and bounds [in the U.S.], it's clear there's a kind of psychic itch to know more about death, to come to terms with it."

The second character Cruz portrayed, Catrina, is a traditional Day of the Dead figure who "embodies the modern fascination with death, but also the inability to come to terms with it." Catrina stays busy with social calls and parties, ignoring her own death. Based on a zinc etching by José Guadalupe Posada, La Calavera Catrina is considered a symbol of The Day of the Dead and the Mexican culture's unique acceptance and celebration of death.

Finally, Cruz played Elena, a Chicana doctor who discussed the stark and confusing politics that impact Latinos, including the often vitriolic discussion around immigration. Elena described in detail items on her Día de Muertos altar. These altars frequently feature a deceased loved one's favorite food, along with photos and other items that serve to honor them.

The play was produced by Judith M. Pender, with Harrison Best working as light board operator and Kayla Ciardi providing poster and program design. A shorter version of the play was performed in Oklahoma City on Oct. 20 as part of the Latino Cultural Center's celebration.

An opportunity for Normanites to enjoy Day of the Dead is coming up: OU's Day of the Dead Street Festival is scheduled from 4-9 p.m. on Nov. 4 at the Lloyd Noble Center. The annual festival, hosted by the Office of Latino Student Life, is will offer cultural performances, live music, artists and street food vendors. The family-friendly event is free and open to the public.

Caleb Slinkard was hired as the editor of the Norman Transcript in August of 2015. He is a graduate of Texas A&M University-Commerce and previously was in charge of several newspapers in northeast Texas.