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Las Borinqueñas

The latest play in the Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Science and Technology Project has a fascinating, little known story to tell.

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Guadalís Del Carmen, Hanna Cheek and Paul Niebanck in a scene from Nelson Diaz-Marcano’s “Las Borinqueñas” at Ensemble Studio Theatre (Photo credit: Valerie Terranova)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Nelson Diaz-Marcano’s Las Borinqueñas, the latest play in the Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Science and Technology Project, has a fascinating, little known story to tell: the clinical trials that led to the creation of the birth control pill which took place in Puerto Rico in the 1950’s up until 1960 when it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration. However, the play has too many characters each with a different story and too many themes that are not fully explored. Another problem for English speakers is that much of the play is in untranslated Spanish, all of the jokes and a good deal of the back and forth between the women. One assumes that this is for authenticity but it makes the play challenging for theatergoers who don’t know Spanish. Director Rebecca Aparicio keeps the play’s events swiftly moving along but does not compensate for the script’s deficiencies or confusing attempt to convey too much information.

On the one hand we follow the work of Dr. Gregory Pincus, an American biologist, who had invented a combined oral contraceptive pill but had come to the end of his research in Massachusetts which at that time outlawed trials on human beings. As a result he plans on moving to Puerto Rico to continue his work there as it was the only part of the United States which permitted human trials of new drugs. (Surprising in a Roman Catholic country.) Combining with Dr. Edris Rice-Wray, medical director of the Puerto Rico Family Planning Association who gave birth control information to poor women, he began a clinical drug trial in which the participants were told that the pills they were taking were for menstrual irregularities. Unfortunately, in the original dose, some women had debilitating cramps, headaches, and nausea. (Three women ultimately died but as no autopsies were conducted, the cause of death was never determined.)

The second strand of the play is of five women who become participants in the study. What complicates the play is that we also follow their stories, all different and all worthy of a play of their own. Chavela is continually pregnant and would like it to stop. Yolanda who is secretly in love with Rosa but separated from her does not want any more children from her idle husband Raul. Rosa, a revolutionary, awaits her husband who has been imprisoned for subversive activities. Fernanda, Yolanda’s conservative and religious sister, finds herself saddled with her two children and later three of her sister’s when she breaks up with boyfriend Pablo who will not leave his wife and commit to her. Rosa who wants many children has had terrible trouble during her last pregnancy.

Guadalís Del Carmen, Maricelis Galanes, Ashley Marie Ortiz and Nicole Betancourt in a scene from Nelson Diaz-Marcano’s “Las Borinqueñas” at Ensemble Studio Theatre (Photo credit: Valerie Terranova)

Stated baldly like this it seems that there are five women friends who just meet to gossip, but each of them suggests a different line of investigation. Rosa has been given a procedure that turns out to have been sterilization but she has not been told the truth. Although Yolanda is hypocritically involved with a married man, she heads the crusade to keep Rosa and Fernanda apart as homosexuality was unacceptable in Puerto Rico at the time. Fernanda has married simply to keep talk of her lesbianism at bay. What Rosa or her husband Lucas are fighting for as activists is never discussed or made clear.

Aside from the domestic problems of the five women, the drama is created by the lies told to the women about the pill they are taking. We are told that many of the more educated women in trial have dropped out after a few weeks. We see Dr. Rice Wray confront Dr. Pincus time and again over the misinformation they are spreading but he believes that the ends justify the means: if the trials lead to a workable pill that can be distributed, then millions of women can avoid unwanted pregnancies or backstreet abortions (one of which makes its way into the storyline.) But as Dr. Rice-Wray predicts, when the formula is finally approved by the FDA as a birth control medication, only the male scientists are given credit in 1960.

The excellent cast keeps the many characters distinct though the relationships between them are not always obvious. Yolanda and Fernanda are sisters, but what of Chavela and Rosa who we first meet rooming together in New York City to get away from political tensions on the island? While Rosa and Fernanda were separated after a shockingly revealing episode, what is the meaning of the information that Rosa was brought up by Yolanda? And we are tantalizingly told that Margaret Sanger has funded Dr. Pincus’ research but that her motives were suspect due to her interest in the discredited science of eugenics. This is not followed up or explained very well.

Maribel Martinez and Guadalís Del Carmen in a scene from Nelson Diaz-Marcano’s “Las Borinqueñas” at Ensemble Studio Theatre (Photo credit: Valerie Terranova)

Maribel Martinez is a very sweet and conflicted Fernanda, living at a time when she could not follow her heart or her desires. As her strict judgmental sister Yolanda, Guadalís Del Carmen is the only character who appears to evolve in the course of the ten years that we follow the story. Ashley Marie Ortiz as the lesbian activist Maria makes a very strong impression even though we never know her backstory. Comic relief is created by both Maricelis Galanes’ gullible Rosa and Nicole Betancourt’s ever-weary Chavela.

Paul Niebanck makes Dr. Gregory Pincus both heroic and despicable, using innocent women as guinea pigs to further his scientific aims, while always speaking from an authoritarian point of view. Hanna Cheek as Dr. Edris Rice-Wray is more sympathetic as she conveys her concerns throughout the play. As Dr. Pincus’ wife Lizzie, Helen Coxe is the sort of committed woman for whom her husband can do no wrong. As the radio broadcaster, Mike Smith Rivera captures the correct tone of voice for the news commentator and then appears as a totally different character as Yolanda’s sugar daddy Pablo.

The production team helps put the play across and create the tropical milieu on Ensemble Studio Theatre’s small stage. Projection designer Milton M. Cordero uses evocative documentary footage from the 1950’s between the scenes to aid Gerardo Díaz Sánchez’s unit setting which serves for doctors’ offices, a restaurant, and several of the women’s homes. While Tina McCartney’s costumes are not colorful or memorable, they are redolent of their era. Maria-Christina Fusté’s lighting is best in its evening scenes which often include astronomical or supernatural occurrences. The sound design by Daniela Hart, Bailey Trierweiler, Noel Nichols and Uptown Works makes the radio broadcasts totally believable for its 1950’s period.

Maribel Martinez and Ashley Marie Ortiz in a scene from Nelson Diaz-Marcano’s “Las Borinqueñas” at Ensemble Studio Theatre (Photo credit: Valerie Terranova)

Nelson Diaz-Marcano’s ambitious Las Borinqueñas has a fascinating story to tell. However, in its current form, it may have bitten off more than it can chew. The play attempts to follow too many women with too many different stories. Besides criticizing Puerto Rican society in the 1950’s in many ways, it also fails to tell us enough about the island nation’s history so that we end up with a great many unanswered questions. While the character relationships are not always entirely clear, the cast gets a good deal of mileage out of their varied and diverse characters. This is a story that should be better known.

La Borinqueñas (through April 28, 2024)

Ensemble Studio Theatre/The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, in collaboration with the Latinx Playwrights Circle & Boundless Theatre Company

Ensemble Studio Theatre, 545 W. 52nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.ensemblestudiotheatre.org/20232024-season/2024/04/lasborinquenas

Running time: two hours and ten minutes including one intermission

 

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About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (984 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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