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‘Yemaya’s Belly’ explores the need to seek something better and the transformations we go through

Kana Gaines, left, and Sabrina Garcia portray youths trying to reach the United States by raft in “Yemaya’s Belly.” (Courtesy of Carla Garcia)

Kana Gaines, left, and Sabrina Garcia portray youths trying to reach the United States by raft in “Yemaya’s Belly.” (Courtesy of Carla Garcia)

SANTA FE, N.M. — A poet and recent transplant from Tennessee, Kana Gaines was perusing online postings for open mic opportunities when a notice of an upcoming production of “Yemaya’s Belly” stopped her cold.

What was Yemayá, an orisha (or goddess) in the Santería religion, a nurturing and fierce ruler of the seas, doing in landlocked Santa Fe?

“I need to find out more about this play,” Gaines said she told herself, explaining that she has an interest in the Yoruba-rooted tradition.

That exploration ended up with Gaines playing a lead role in the play by Quiara Alegría Hudes, which is being performed at Teatro Paraguas Thursdays-Sundays through Oct. 25.

Ask why the play was chosen, and you only have to see director Alix Hudson and actress Roxanne Tapia, board president for Teatro Paraguas, swooning toward each other with hands over their hearts to intuit the answer. “We love Quiara,” Tapia said.

Indeed, Teatro Paraguas had done a reading of “Yemaya’s Belly” in last year’s season, along with a full production of the Latina, New York-based playwright’s Pulitzer Prizing-winning “Water by the Spoonful.”

This latest production tells how the city lights on the coast lure Jesus, who, when his rural home is hit by a natural disaster, aims to go even farther to reach the Spam, Coca Cola and luxury promised by the United States.

With the new name of Mulo representing his new self, he ends up on a raft, riding Yemayá’s belly, with the question left to the audience of whether she lifted him to the United States, carried him back home, or took him into the belly of the sea.

“It’s extremely topical with the new policy toward Cuba and the international refugee crisis,” Hudson said. “It really fits.”

And, in a twist she never expected, it stars a 28-year-old female, Gaines, playing the 11-year-old Jesus/Mulo and a 30-year-old, Sabrina Garcia, portraying his 14-year-old partner-in-flight, Maya.

Hudson said she was won over by the way Gaines inhabited the character, to the point of making her think of Gaines as shorter than her, even though she is taller; that casting caused it to make sense, then, that Maya also be played by an adult.

With a 13-year-old sister, Garcia said, it wasn’t hard for her to understand the teen mentality.

“They think they are grown up and know everything. They’re falsely confident,” she said. “But they don’t know anything.”

Garcia describes Maya as “the ultimate little city teenager” who is sassy and “thinks she knows what she is doing and goes and does it.” She is building her boat, a raft, with plans to leave the island when she runs into Mulo. When she discovers they both had lost their mothers, she takes him under her wing and allows him onto her raft.

Kana Gaines, left, and Roxanne Tapia rehearse a scene from "Yemayah's Belly" at Teatro Paraguas. (Courtesy of Carla Garcia)

Kana Gaines, left, and Roxanne Tapia rehearse a scene from “Yemayah’s Belly” at Teatro Paraguas. (Courtesy of Carla Garcia)

Like the other two women in the five-person cast, Garcia takes on two roles, the second being Yemaya herself, who gives Jesus “a taste of the eternal.” (Argos MacCallum and Jonathan Harrell are the male cast members.)

Gaines technically doesn’t play two roles – just the two identities of Jesus/Mulo.

As for playing an 11-year-old boy, she enthused, “It’s fun!” Gaines said she’s enjoying the physical freedom, lacking all self-consciousness, that boys that age feel in their bodies. “I’m letting my shoulders hang and my arms sprawl,” she said.

Noting that she has taught children in the past, Gaines added that she didn’t find it hard to get inside the character’s head.

“Jesus has a big imagination and really big dreams,” she said. “All he sees around him is the mundane, the farm life in Cuba. He’s surrounded by poverty.”

After a hometown and family tragedy, he becomes a hardened version of himself, Mulo, who is convinced that all of his dreams will come true in America.

“He inhabits extremes to perform,” she said. “He is naive and childlike, courageous and fearless.”

At its heart, said Tapia, who plays the roles of Jesus’ mother and a shopkeeper, the story is about transformation.

From left, Argos MacCallum, Jonathan Harrell and Kana Gaines rehearse a scene in “Yemaya’s Belly.” (Courtesy of Carla Garcia)

From left, Argos MacCallum, Jonathan Harrell and Kana Gaines rehearse a scene in “Yemaya’s Belly.” (Courtesy of Carla Garcia)

“Everyone transforms in some way,” she said of the script. “It reveals how we are all connected. It’s about humanity.”

Hudson sees it as showing how we can’t abandon our past as we make our ways into the future, since we all are formed by where we came from. It also shows how we shape our own stories about ourselves, she said.

Discovery and perseverance in finding and reaching what you see as good in life is the message for Garcia and Gaines said “amen” to all her colleague’s ideas.

“The reason why I wanted to audition for Jesus,” she said, “is that I feel at heart it’s a play about feelings, the urge to turn from pain toward paradise, or some sense of comfort. I know that pattern.

“What is so interesting about the play is that you don’t know what happens at the end – it’s not clear-cut,” Gaines added. “That’s so true to life.”

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