Caste Connection

Tanya Saracho's new play, "The Tenth Muse," is the result of a fascinating creative odyssey.

"The Tenth Muse" is set in an 18th-century convent in colonial Mexico during a time of plague and the increasing power of the Inquisition. Three young women from different social castes — Spanish, a mestiza and a Nahua Indian — enter the cloister, seeking protection. They find — hidden in a locked armoire — the lost writings of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a Mexican nun widely admired in her time for her poetry and intellectual acumen who was silenced by the Inquisition. The impact of this discovery on their understanding of the oppressive use of race, social class and gender changes them forever.

Directed by Laurie Woolery, "The Tenth Muse" will premiere in the Bowmer Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland. The play will preview at 1:30 p.m. Friday, July 26; open at 8 p.m. Saturday, July 27; and run through Nov. 2. Tickets cost $25, $59, $71 or $86 and can be purchased online at or by calling 541-482-4331.

OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch originally commissioned award-winning Latina playwright Saracho to write an adaptation of Sor Juana's "The House of Desires," a 17th-century romantic farce. Rauch envisioned producing the work as part of festival's program of presenting world classics from other times and cultures to OSF audiences.

But as Saracho worked on adapting "The House of Desires," she realized that telling Sor Juana's story was as important as presenting the play. To establish Sor Juana's time and place, Saracho created characters and action to bookend "The House of Desires" as a "play within a play." Very soon, it became clear that the framework — the effect Sor Juana's work had on women trapped by a patriarchal system — was the story she wanted to tell.

"This play is very much about the role of caste, of social class connected to race, not to economic status," Woolery says. "For Tanya Saracho, skin color is integral to the story and the casting in this production reflects that."

For example, cast member Wilma Bonet, a Latina, who was to play both Sor Filomena and an indigenous woman, recently broke her ankle. She will be out of the play for six to eight weeks and a replacement had to be found. Saracho and Woolery cast K.T. Vogt to play Sor Filomena, but she wasn't right for the part of the indigenous woman. Saracho and Woolery selected Carolina Morones, a teaching artist in OSF's education outreach program, to play that role.

The cast also includes Judith-Marie Bergan, Vivia Font, Sabina Zuniga Varela, Alejandra Escalante, Vilma Silva and Sofia Jean Gomez.

Similarly, words in Spanish and in the contemporary indigenous dialect, Nahuati, are sprinkled throughout the play.

"Nahuati still exists," Woolery says. "We consulted with people who speak it because we wanted to get the correct word for a particular context."

This is the third collaboration for director Woolery and playwright Saracho. The two women were introduced several years ago by mutual friend Christopher Acebo seeing plays in Ashland.

"We immediately connected," Woolery says.

Early last year, Woolery directed the West Coast premiere of Saracho's "El Nogalar" at Los Angeles' Fountain Theatre and, subsequently, in December 2012, a workshop production of her "Song for the Disappeared" at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

Saracho suggested Woolery to Rauch as director for "The Tenth Muse." Woolery is a former associate artistic director at Los Angeles' Cornerstone Theatre and directed "The Language Archive" at OSF in 2011.

Saracho and Woolery then worked together with dramaturgs Luis Alfaro and Lue Morgan Douthit, as well as with the cast and design staff, to, as Woolery describes it, "conjure Sor Juana's spirit."

"For me, this play is about legacy. It is because of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz that as a Latina woman, I have been able to have the career I have," Woolery says. "That I have the opportunity, as a Latina director, to direct a play written by a Latina playwright, with a magnificent cast of women, is living proof that Sor Juana's legacy is alive today."

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at

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