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Gender Oppression Confronted

Our Opinionated Judge examines 'The Tenth Muse'

Darleen Ortega | 9/4/2013, 10:51 a.m.
The play centers on three young women who find themselves taking refuge in the convent: Jesusa, a Mestiza (half-Spanish and ...
Jesusa (Vivia Font), Manuela (Alejandra Escalante) and Tomasita (Sabina Zuniga Varela) discuss a radical course of action in ‘The Tenth Muse,’ a play about a 17th century nun who was regarded as the first published feminist of the New World, now playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Every so often, I'll learn of some historical figure who inspires me so profoundly, I can't quite forgive my education for not introducing me to him or her sooner. I have the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to thank for introducing me to Sister ("Sor" in Spanish) Juana Inés de la Cruz, a 17th-century nun who is regarded as the first published feminist of the New World. Sor Juana is famous in Mexico (her face appears on the 200 pesos bill), but has not been the subject of major study in English.

"The Tenth Muse," playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival through Nov. 2, conveys a sense of Sor Juana's influence and is rich with insights for anyone struggling to find her voice against pressure to silence it.

The play is set 20 years after Sor Juana's death, in a convent outside what is now Mexico City. In that period of Spanish colonial rule, there existed in New Spain (now Mexico) a rigid caste system in which one's status depended entirely on the quotient of Spanish blood one could claim.

The play centers on three young women who find themselves taking refuge in the convent: Jesusa, a Mestiza (half-Spanish and half Amerindian) who has come to care for an ailing nun; Tomasita, a timid Nahua Indian who has come to serve in the kitchen; and Manuela, a noblewoman whose arrival is occasioned by circumstances that are not immediately explained. The three are relegated to the basement storage room and are instructed not to open a locked armoire that sits in the corner.

Oppression and class fuel the story. It's clear that these young unmarried women have few options in colonial New Spain; convents functioned as a refuge for women who lacked suitable husbands, though hardly a place of comfort. But the Inquisition lurks as a threat throughout the play; the nuns impose a rigid order that is designed to keep them clear of any conflict with Church authorities. Further, though the three young women are all refugees in a sense, social hierarchies immediately influence how they assess and treat each other.

But before long, they find the keys to that locked armoire, and it contains the means to their spiritual freedom. Inside are piles of paper and notebooks containing poems, songs, and plays of Sor Juana, hidden away because the Church considers them dangerous.

The young women, chafing against the rigid social order that confines them, find in these papers a means of escape into a world in which they may playfully imagine themselves differently. They begin reading one of the plays, aptly named House of Desires, assigning to themselves roles that upset the class order to which the outside world consigns them. Little do they realize that what seems harmless and joyous to them is exactly what seems dangerous to Church authorities who define what is possible in their world.

The play, commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and enjoying its world premiere run, is the work of Tanya Saracho, a Mexican playwright whose work explores a rich array of Latina voices.