UT Theater’s ‘Esperanza Rising’ adapted from best-selling novel

Mary Cantrell

Since day one of rehearsals, the cast and crew of UT’s latest production, “Esperanza Rising,” have been focused on accuracy. Their collective desire for historical authenticity came in the form of a mariachi band and a Mission Revival stage design.

Directed by theatre graduate student Natalie Novacek, “Esperanza Rising” is a play based on the best-selling novel by Pam Muñoz Ryan. The play chronicles the survival of a young girl, Esperanza Ortega, as she is driven out of Mexico and into a migrant labor camp in California. Esperanza is given no other opportunity than to work for a wage and support her family. Novacek said the play offers valuable insight into what life was like in post-revolutionary Mexico in the 1930s. 

“The first half of the play is set in Mexico, which has its own set of cultural rules.” Novacek said. “Really being able to predict the truth of the culture has been something we have spent a lot of time on.” 

The “Esperanza Rising” cast, made up of 20 students and a mariachi band, spent most of their rehearsals learning proper greetings, how to dance and how close to stand to the opposite sex in public — all to achieve authenticity. 

“I am really interested in building the world of the play,” Novacek said. “We spent a lot of time in rehearsal talking about our parents and our grandparents and what their lives were like — how they were so different.” Acting sophomore Madison Palomo, who plays Esperanza, said she draws on her own experiences growing up to help her develop the role of Esperanza.

“She has an innocence and a vulnerability about her,” Palomo said. “But she grows up very fast. She is thrown into work and not allowed to complain.” 

Novacek said the cultural and historical aspects of the play are also represented through the set and lighting. The set design team blended the popular Mexican hacienda-style architecture with the Mission Revival style of California.

“Our set has elements of both places. Although it is a permanent structure, it harkens to both Mexico and California,” Novacek said. 

Novacek hopes that “Esperanza Rising” will give audiences a message of hope and perseverance.

“I wanted to be able to show people that even though you might be on your own, there are still ways to make connections — to live a fruitful, loving and comfortable life, even if you’re away from home,” Novacek said. “You can find a home within yourself and within the support of the people around you.”

The play is set to premiere at the B. Iden Payne Theatre stage Friday. Tickets can be found on Texas Performing Art’s website.