I know it’s been awhile (I literally just read and edited my “About Me!” section for the first time in like 5 years and, uh… yikes), but I have a rant in me, so hello!
One day on facebook, I saw a sizzle reel for a new musical called Kiss My Aztec (Book by John Leguizamo and Tony Taccone, Music by Benjamin Velez, Lyrics by David Kamp, Benjamin Velez, and John Leguizamo) at Berkeley Rep, which included the wry opening number “White People on Boats.” Between that and the interviews with the director, writers, and choreographer, the great reviews — it sounded amazing. It was enough to convince me to take a spur-of-the-moment trip to the Bay Area to see it. I was under the impression that I would be treated to a show that explored Aztec heritage and culture while at the same time mocking and damning colonialism. Sign me up, sez I! A couple of friends and I booked our tickets, secured accommodations, and headed out for a theatre adventure.
Before I launch into what it is I saw, I want to note that the cast is very talented, I enjoyed most of the costumes, I enjoyed the set and the lights, and the band was SMOKIN’. This critique is mostly about the content of the show. In short, I am not a fan. At times I was merely uncomfortable, at times I was offended.
And at times I admit I laughed at a well-delivered inbreeding joke.
But for the most part I sat in bewilderment about how a show with a primarily Latinx creative team and cast created this. When I mentioned this to my friends, it was pointed out to me that speaking truth to power comes at a higher cost for POC and so it’s entirely possible that the cast and designers were like, “This sucks, but, hey, it’s the Rep and it’s John Leguizamo, and this is my shot.” It’s entirely possible that they said something and it was ignored. It’s also entirely possible that they all believe in this show and that I, a white person, didn’t find it funny because the humor wasn’t meant for me to get.
Basically I want to acknowledge that I am questioning why I’m offended because I don’t want to do that thing that well-meaning white people do where we get all worked up over shit that isn’t a thing in an effort to be a Good Ally ™.
That all being said… I really think that Kiss My Aztec sucked.
What Is This About?
Here is the basic plot line. Well, that’s impossible. There were so many plot lines going on in this show, a third of which would have been cut in a half-decent workshop, that you can’t really sum it up succinctly. I’ll do my best. A priestess/narrator comes out at the top of the show and says that Aztecs have a LOT of history and we’re not going to be able to cover all of it, so we’re just going to go on this little snippet of a revenge fantasy about Aztec slaves rebelling against their Spanish overlords in the 1570s.
So there’s Aztec warrior girl Columbina who wants to fight to avenge her mother’s death and save her people from slavery. Aztec Leader Dad says girls can’t fight, she should stay home and be a wifey. Columbina says hell no and, with the help of mediocre Aztec boy Pepe, defies Aztec Dad and infiltrates the Spanish citadel. Also they fall in love. Of course.
The rest of the Aztec warriors, who were built up with training sequences and assembly lines sharpening weapons, basically run back and forth across the stage with spears for the rest of the show. There’s a battle at the end — I honestly think that they ran out of budget for actors because that 4-5 person ensemble basically did the work of twelve. I’m surprised there wasn’t one of them half dressed as a conquistador, half dressed as an Aztec warrior fighting himself.
In the meantime, evil Spanish Viceroy wants to secure his kingdom in the New World by enslaving and murdering Aztecs and marrying off his daughter to other Spanish viceroys. He is very Captain Hook, complete with black curly locks. His gay son Fernando is banging a member of the Spanish Inquisition — and I say banging because it is by no means a romance, which I’ll get to later.
Viceroy’s daughter Pilar constantly talks about how much she loves having sex and almost anytime anyone speaks of her, they basically call her a slut for laughs. She does have the line, “Well behaved women rarely make history,” so, you know, feminism. There’s no talk of, “Why shouldn’t I be the heir? I’d run this shit better than you” or even the trite “I want to marry for love.” Nope. Pilar just wants to bang. Honestly, I’m cool with that in general, but you’ll see why this actually sucks later.
There’s also a coked out French guy who’s called The Fixer and even though that actor was hysterical in the role, there was basically no reason for him to be there other than as a shade of LaFayette from Hamilton. There’s even a VERY disappointing rap battle. Like. Very disappointing.
There are a couple other half-baked plots about needing to get an amulet back to the priestess/narrator, an inbred prince wanting to marry Pilar so his children won’t have tails, and about a Great Brown Savior prophesized to save the Aztecs (which I THINK is supposed to be Columbina…? Maybe? But I also thought it was in reference to Cortez…who isn’t in this show?).
Could Use More Aztecs
My main problem with Kiss My Aztec is that it has little to no Aztec culture in it. We get Afro-Cuban, we get black, we get Chicano, we get Puerto Rican. And here’s the deal. All of those cultures are valid and awesome. Much of Latinx culture is an amalgam of indigenous culture and colonist culture. If this show wanted to make a point of saying, “Hey, y’all, we actually don’t know what an Aztec accent would sound like because, you know, you white bitches killed them all, so we’re gonna pay homage to our diaspora,” or, whatever, something better written than that, it would have gone a long way. This show wasn’t called “South American Colonization: The Musical” and the plot was very specifically about Aztecs and the conquistadores. So. I personally think it should have, you know, included more Aztecs.
They shoehorned in a Southern Baptist black gospel number complete with choir robes in order to sacrifice a family member (which literally was just Uncle Carlos walking directly upstage into an open door with smoke in it). How does that pay homage to the Aztecs and their descendants? At one point they made a Lion King reference and used gibberish instead of Swahili and threw in words like “chimichanga” in the middle of it. The Afro-Cuban and Puerto Rican music was boss (and did I mention the band freaking killed it? Cus they did), but… the Aztecs weren’t Caribbean.
Was there no one they could have asked to incorporate pre-colonial indigenous language/dances/music? Nothing? No one? Legitimately, I have no idea. Considering that devastating fire of Brazil’s National Museum in which hundreds of records of indigenous languages and records were lost, it’s possible. So if that couldn’t be done or if that’s not the direction that they wanted to go, then I think that the show would have benefitted from acknowledging in the play that Latinx culture is not a monolith and they are going to be using the languages and cultures of the whole Latinx family to tell the story of their ancestors. Something. They built the frame work for this sort of missive with the priestess/narrator and they didn’t use her to any effect at all.
So I guess here are the big questions: Who was this for? Was this for educating well-meaning white people like me? Was this an easy in for white people to experience brown art in a nonthreatening manner? Was this for Latinx people?
Regardless, I still say that if you’re going to frame your story with “We are proud of our people and we will not be erased,” (which they definitely pushed at the top of the show and at the end, not so much in the middle) then I feel like you should probably talk about Aztec culture in your show. There were hints of it in the costumes, the back wall paint, some sacrifice jokes (lazy), and the almost generic indigenous priestess who had magic powers she drew from the moon, but that was pretty much it. There was one song where they were listing out Aztec gods and, following each name, the Aztec warriors literally mocked their own gods with a malapropism. (“Quetzalcoatl!” “Ketchup coat tails?!”)
I learned absolutely nothing about Aztec culture from this show. That was supremely disappointing to me, considering the marketing and press. I’m not saying that I needed a History Channel TED Talk with music, but it was such a wasted opportunity.
The book writers tried to do a thing where they mixed “Shakespearean language with ghetto slang” — that is a quote from a Q&A in the program. This meant that the actors spoke in this “elevated” Shakespearean language mixed in with cursing and street talk. “I hath had enough of thine fuckery!” And sometimes it was funny. But mostly it made no sense. WHY are the Aztecs speaking in Shakespearean language? It would have made way more sense for only the Spaniards, the oppressors, to speak this way. The composers mention in an interview that they wanted to use more European sounds for the Spaniards and more American urban sounds for the Aztecs — maybe he should have mentioned this to the book writers.
One of my friends who saw the show with me also pointed out that it would have made it easier for the Hardest Working Ensemble in the Bay Area to differentiate between all the characters that they played. Plus, the Aztecs weren’t just speaking Spanish/Shakespearean, they would use AAVE intonations and vernacular — this felt weird and appropriative. It seemed like they were trying to make the Aztecs more street, more hip hop, but in a very black way. It made me uncomfortable.
Strong Female Characters as Written by Men
There was not a single female character in that show who did not have to use her sexuality in order to further her story. Columbina, disguised in a Pocohantas, one-shouldered, fringed crop top and mini skirt and fringed cowboy boots decorated with topaz (…yeah), sneaks into the Viceroy’s bedroom to steal an amulet. Bad ass, leather pantsed, “I’ll kill all those filthy Spaniards” Columbina is alone with him, the man who killed her mother. He is unarmed. What does she do to get the amulet?
Why, they sing a song about how his kink is spooning and she spoons him and pats his butt til he falls asleep and then she gently takes the amulet off his neck.
BITCH! Use that amulet TO S-T-R-A-N-G-L-E HIM!
How AWESOME would that be?
She leaves him SLEEPING on the bed!
The man who is responsible for MURDERING HER MOTHER. ENSLAVING HER PEOPLE.
In the opening scenes, there was a reference to this bad ass Aztec weapon that her mother gave her for her quincenera, but she literally forgot it at home before she went to storm the castle. Instead, we got a little musical number about the Viceroy fetishizing an indigenous woman dressed in American-ized Native American garb, but the actor playing Columbina is a great dancer and fell into a split, so, hooray.
To my recollection, this show does not pass the Bechdel test.
I was DEEPLY disturbed by the constant fetishization of brown bodies in this show. The most horrifying was a song called “Dark Meat” in which blonde Spanish princess Pilar fantasizes about making her daddy mad by sleeping with brown people. And this wasn’t like “Molasses to Rum” where you are supposed to be uncomfortable and disturbed. Pilar grinds on the bed and then they bring out a fan so that she can sing in front of it like The Lady of the Lake. There were many other examples of Aztecs being hot or sexy or horny. It was a lot.
Rape is a favorite tool of the oppressor. This is not funny.
But What About Teh Menz?
Let’s talk about the two leading men in this show. First is Pepe.
So. Ugh. Okay.
He’s called a sissy and a pussy by several people in the show, even by Columbina, who is supposed to fall for him. No, I take it back, she makes a point to say that she’s not in love with him, she just wants to bang him — because that’s how empowered women think and operate, obviously. Feminism!
The reason why he is called a sissy and a pussy is because he is a virgin who wants to save himself for love and he dislikes violence. He wears overalls, so he is clearly infantilized, and he has these two sock puppets named Machu and Pichu (GET IT?) that he keeps whipping out to show off his vaudeville skills. He is constantly told that he is not a man and needs to man up.
At one point he is told he needs to sleep with Pilar because if he bangs Pilar, then her marriage to this other Spanish guy will fall through because she’s not a virgin (EVEN THOUGH EVERYONE ALREADY KNOWS THIS — literally every line about Pilar is about how much of a slut she is, so what’s one more bed notch? This dilemma was so weak). And he doesn’t want to.
Pepe. does. not. want. to. sleep. with. Pilar.
He is clear about this.
So what happens?
The priestess hypnotizes him so that he’ll want to do it, ie be more of a man. And how does Pepe act when he is hypnotized? Basically he becomes a blacksploitation hero. Complete with a deep voice, use of AAVE, and a huge fur coat.
So. Again. Are these Aztecs? Where are we? Who is this? Why is this? Why are we using the white colonial myth of the sexualized black man to make Pepe, an indigenous man of a terminated culture, more of A Man?
Pepe, I’m here to tell you that it’s totally okay to be a soft boi. You fucking stay gold, Ponyboy.
Spoiler: The Evil Gays Die
Then we have Fernando. Fernando is the gay son of the Viceroy. And we know he is the gay son and that he has a gay lover because both of them speak effeminately and make sexual innuendos about how much they love to bang. Hooray for representation!
Honestly, a gay romance between a Spanish prince and a member of the Inquisition — um, yes, please, that sounds great.
But this wasn’t a romance. They sang a song that amounted to “Sunsets are pink, so God must be gay!” and all their scenes ended with a line to the tune of, “All this talk about XYZ makes me want to put my anaconda in your rabbit hole.” And then they’d titter and twinkle off stage.
Side note: I have a hard time believing that two gay men would be talking lovingly of God during the height of the Spanish Inquisition. You have a(n overly sexualized) gay couple on stage and they’re going to spend their one song together talking about how the Catholic God is one of them? Please.
At the end, when they are trying to poison Fernando’s father, the Viceroy double-crosses them and the Inquisition guy drinks the poison instead. He dies, singing a reprise of “God is Gay.” This play then has the GALL to have Fernando quote Romeo and Juliet and drink the poison himself so that he can die on top of his boyfriend.
Not ONCE did these characters kiss on stage, even after a dance number where they dipped and tango-ed and ended up in each other’s arms.
Not ONCE did these characters do anything affectionate to each other.
This plot line was a weak attempt at diversity and still ended in violence.
Also why did Fernando drink that poison? Why wouldn’t he, I don’t know, ATTACK AND KILL his father and gain the throne like he wanted? If I’m supposed to believe that Fernando was so devastated about losing his boyfriend that he would rather die, then I’m going to need more than a couple Mel Brooks-ian gay stereotypes, including quoting RuPaul, and several “You have a big dick and I’d like it in my butt” lines.
In the end, Columbina defeats the Viceroy in battle (but doesn’t kill him?? Come on, this is a REVENGE FANTASY).
Pilar says that she no longer wants to be a slut, but instead a “monogamous lesbian.”
Pepe is told that Columbina will sleep with him, but doesn’t want to marry him, so I guess his “waiting for love” thing means nothing. There are a couple jokes about how Columbina tries to say, “I love you,” but literally can’t say the word “love” because…I don’t know.
The narrator priestess… is still around, good for her, I guess.
And then there is the rousing finale which is a song about how white people should get over racism because we’re just going to all sleep with each other anyway and make more and more brown babies whether we like it or not. Which. I mean. Okay. But, again, MUST we focus on the sex? I’m not a prude, but in the context of speaking about the genocide of an entire civilization of people, where rape was specifically used as a tool to destroy the Aztecs, and understanding that there is rampant racism in many South American countries about how much Spanish vs indigenous blood you have, I just feel like the takeaway shouldn’t be we’re gonna take over the world through intermarriage and fucking each other.
Am I Just a Humorless Crank
I’m annoyed. I’m annoyed that I’m surprised. I’m annoyed that I’m surprised that it feels like most people are not seeing the dissonance between what the marketing and the interviews and the reviews say this show is — an empowering celebration of Latinx culture and an amplification of Aztec history created by Latinx people — and what I actually saw.
Have I just lost my sense of humor? Should I just lighten the fuck up? Maybe I shouldn’t have expected something more from a musical written by this guy. I basically left that theatre feeling uncomfortable and a little bit gaslighted.
My experience of this show can be summed up by the sign that was taped to the inside of one of the bathroom stalls.
In big bold letters at the top of the page, it had the header Bad Ass Aztecs.
Underneath was this little dramaturgical factoid:
Although the Spanish subjugated the Aztecs through use of violence, most of them actually died of small pox.