GALA’s ‘Separate Is Never Equal’ honors a girl who changed the world

The entertaining and enlightening story of Sylvia Méndez, whose lawsuit helped desegregate California schools.

There are times when a young girl can change the world. Ruby Bridges (1954–) accomplished a victory for civil rights in America in 1960, when she became the first Black student to integrate an elementary school in the South. Her age at the time? Six. Greta Thunberg, 18, as an unknown Swedish 15-year-old, began her climate change protest with a school strike. She has now achieved global fame. Pakistani activist MalalaYousafzai, now 24, advocated publicly for the education of girls. In 2012, at age 15, she was shot in the head by a member of Pakistan’s Taliban. After many surgeries and a long recovery, she established the Malala Fund, a charity dedicated to giving every young girl the opportunity to attain the future of her choice. In December 2014 she became the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Edwin Bernal, Melissa Strobva-Valencia, and Delbis Cardona in ‘La llamada de Sylvia Méndez: Separate Is Never Equal.’ Photo by Stan Weinstein.

GALita, a program of GALA Hispanic Theatre for the whole family, is presenting La llamada de Sylvia Méndez: Separate Is Never Equal, celebrating another young girl whose story we should all know: Sylvia Méndez. Since 1976, GALita has produced bilingual theater for young audiences. Its goal: to “inspire a sense of joy, discovery, pride and identity in our community’s children.” In a time when the debate over critical race theory is pervading the political airwaves, it is essential to acknowledge how initiatives against racism can and must succeed.

Melissa Strova-Valencia and Diana González-Ramírez in ‘La llamada de Sylvia Méndez: Separate Is Never Equal.’ Photo by Stan Weinstein.

In California during the mid-1940s, schools were segregated. Nine-year-old Sylvia, who was Mexican American, was forced to attend a separate and inferior school, Hoover Elementary. In 1945, the Méndez family, along with four other Mexican American families, filed a class-action lawsuit against four Orange County school districts on behalf of roughly 5,000 Hispanic American schoolchildren. The Méndez plaintiffs won, and the schools appealed. The case gained support at the appellate level from Thurgood Marshall, lead attorney of the NAACP (and later Supreme Court Justice). He filed an amicus brief, which contained arguments he would later use in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) to successfully attack the “separate but equal” doctrine, effectively ending school segregation in America. In 2011, Sylvia Méndez was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

Rebecca Medrano, Co-Founder and Executive Director of GALA, told me at the performance of La llamada de Sylvia Méndez that immigrant mothers from the local Bancroft Elementary school were bringing their children. It was great to see these under-twelves participating and enjoying the experience; one was even lucky enough to name a doll that was used in the production!

Expertly directed by Elena Velasco, and skillfully acted, the show is eminently watchable. We first meet Doña Rosa (Diana González-Ramírez), a composite character, who was Sylvia’s childhood friend, now an adult. She becomes our guide. We feel for Pedro (Natalie Cumming, subbing for Deibis Cordona), who has just been thrown out of a store that serves only white people.

Edwin Bernal, Melissa Strova-Valencia, and Delbis Cardona. (Back) Diana González-Ramírez in ‘La llamada de Sylvia Méndez: Separate Is Never Equal.’ Photo by Stan Weinstein.

We meet Sylvia’s classmates at Hoover Elementary. There is their teacher Ms. Woodward (Skye Ellis), Rosita (the young Doña Rosa), Tonio (Edwin Bernal), and Pedro (Natalie Cumming). Cardboard boxes and large alphabet cubes, with bright orange balls hanging from the ceiling, suggest a believable elementary school classroom. (Scenic Design is by Mariana C. Fernández). It is terrible to see the education of Hispanic children deemed “a waste of taxpayer money” by bigoted adults, but the songs, dance, and poetry render Sylvia’s story entertaining and enlightening.

Melissa Strova-Valencia pulls at our heartstrings as the young Sylvia. Diana González-Ramírez excels in several roles, from Rosita to Sylvia’s fashionable aunt, Tía Chole, to attorney David Marcus.

The actors’ versatility is striking, as almost all play a variety of parts. Skye Ellis, whom we first see as the teacher Ms. Woodward, is Sylvia’s mother, Sra. Méndez, California Attorney-Abogado Joel Ogle, and the Principal-Director of Sylvia’s new school, 17th St. Elementary. Edwin Bernal is Tonio, Sr. Sánchez, and Gerónimo. Natalie Cumming is Pedro and Sr. Méndez. All perform with notable humor and charm.

Melissa Strova-Valencia, Edwin Bernal, Diana González-Ramírez, and Delbis Cardona in ‘La llamada de Sylvia Méndez: Separate Is Never Equal.’ Photo by Stan Weinstein.

Elena Velasco’s direction is especially inventive in combining movement, dance, and music. The script has been given a handsome physical production, with lighting design by Alberto Segarra, sound design by Konstantine Lortkipanidze, and costume and properties design by Tessa Grippaudo

I had the opportunity to talk to the playwright, Cornelia Cody, who wrote Picasso and VolcanO for GALA and who is also a poet and author of childrens’ books. She plans to highlight some themes and add the Presidential Medal of Freedom story to the next presentation, which will be in March.

In the end, the alphabet blocks spelled out the message of the day: J U S T I C I A.

Melissa Strova-Valencia and Delbis Cardona in ‘La llamada de Sylvia Méndez: Separate Is Never Equal.’ Photo by Stan Weinstein.

There was an after-show discussion, and the children at the GALA theater were full of questions. They were encouraged to write to the real Sylvia.

The next time you see a young girl, on the street, or at a party, or just at home with the family, take a second look. She may just change the world.

Running Time: Approximately 50 minutes, with no intermission.

La llamada de Sylvia Méndez: Separate Is Never Equal presented by GALita was performed in Spanish with English surtitles October 16 to 23, 2021, at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th Street NW, Washington, DC. The family-friendly show will be available virtually on-demand in mid-November 2021 and will be performed onstage again at GALA Hispanic Theatre on March 12, 19, and 26, 2022. Tickets for the spring 2022 run ($12, adult; $10, child 2–12) are available now online.

All patrons must wear a mask. Proof of vaccination or recent negative COVID test required for patrons ages 12 and up. For more details, see GALA’S COVID-19 Safety Policy.

SEE ALSO:
GALA’s daring and diverse new season to tackle freedom (season announcement)

CREDITS
Written by Cornelia Cody
Commissioned by Gala Hispanic Theatre
CAST
Sylvia Méndez: Melissa Strova-Valencia
Dona Rosa/Rosita/Tia Chola/David Marcus: Diana GonzálezRamírez
Ms. Woodward/Sra. Méndez /CA Atttorney: Skye Ellis
Abogado Joel Ogle/Principal-Director 17th St. ESPedro/Sr. Méndez: Natalie Cumming
Tonio/Sr. Sánchez /Gerónimo: Edwin Bernal
DIRECTION & DESIGN
Director: Elena Velasco
Scenic Design: Mariana C. Fernández
Lighting Design: Alberto Segarra
Sound Design: Konstantine Lortkipanidze
Costume & Properties Design: Tessa Grippaudo

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Sophia Howes has been a reviewer for DCMTA since 2013 and a columnist since 2015. She has an extensive background in theater. Her play Southern Girl was performed at the Public Theater-NY, and two of her plays, Rosetta’s Eyes and Solace in Gondal, were produced at the Playwrights’ Horizons Studio Theatre. She studied with Curt Dempster at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, where her play Madonna was given a staged reading at the Octoberfest. Her one-acts Better Dresses and The Endless Sky, among others, were produced as part of Director Robert Moss’s Workshop-NY. She has directed The Tempest, at the Hazel Ruby McQuain Amphitheatre, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Monongalia Arts Center, both in Morgantown, WV. She studied Classics and English at Barnard and received her BFA with honors in Drama from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Seidman Award for playwriting. Her play Adamov was produced at the Harold Clurman Theater on Theater Row-NY. She holds an MFA from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Lucille Lortel Award for playwriting. She studied with, among others, Michael Feingold, Len Jenkin, Lynne Alvarez, and Tina Howe. Her father, Carleton Jones, long-time real estate editor and features writer for the Baltimore Sun, inspired her to become a writer.

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