La Catrina & Posada: A Grave Dance

A play by Jim Nikas, directed by Carolina Soza, with Carlos Barón as José Guadalupe Posada and Tessa Martínez as La Catrina
Mission Cultural Center, November 17, 2023, 6-9 pm.

“Many years ago, when I discovered Posada’s engravings,” says Jim Nikas, “I couldn’t believe that an artist of such incredible talent wasn’t better known outside Mexico. I mean the most popular figures and decorations for the Day of the Dead are inspired by the skeletons and skulls he drew as an illustrator in the late nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. And he drew them mainly to make fun of different public figures of the time.” 

Jim Nikas, whose real name isn’t Jim but Aristides and whose grandfather was Mexican, is a founding member of the Posada Art Foundation; and since he has never written a play before, he asked Carlos Barón, local playwright, actor and multicultural theater director for a hand. 

“La Catrina & Posada: A Grave Dance,” a play by Jim Nikas, co-directed by Carlos Barón. Photo: Willy Lizárraga

“You see, theater is essentially conflict. Jim is an excellent researcher and historian, and knows everything about Posada, but the drama part needed help. Anyway, he’s been receptive to my suggestions and we’re slowly getting there, a true work in progress. Which is why we are staging a reading, not a full-theater production, although there’s live music with costumes and everything.“

Barón, who is playing Posada, plans to shave his beard and wax his mustache in the late nineteenth century style. One could say that in the same way that Nikas has found in promoting Posada’s illustrations a sense of purpose and an avocation, Barón appears to have found in portraying Posada on the stage an ideal opportunity to act a dilemma that is close to his heart: the struggling artist of a certain age who contemplates his legacy with irreverent eyes. 

The question of artistic legacy, in any case, is an inexhaustible conundrum, mainly because it involves attempting to control what is beyond our reach. The assessment and interpretation of what we accomplish in our lives will always fall into the hands of others, usually after we are dead. And they would unfailingly judge us, not informed by our own passions and prejudices, but theirs. 

Take Frida Kahlo, for instance. Whatever she imagined her legacy would be, she most likely never fathomed she’d be the favorite decorative icon in most taquerias and Mexican restaurant around the world. We could blame her megalomaniac obsession to package herself in ethnic clothes, a sort of minstrelsy that would’ve been redundant if she’d been an ordinary indigenous woman, but because of her half-German background, it had (and has) a unique, almost surreal, exotic glamor. 

There is also another key ingredient in why Frida Kahlo has become such a popular merchandise. She wasn’t only obsessed with her ethnic, Mexican self but with the excruciating physical pain she endured throughout her life. Perhaps she had no choice, but Frida in pain was all she cared to paint. And she did it without any self-pity, perhaps her greatest gift to the world. 

José Guadalupe Posada is the exact opposite of Frida in artistic terms. He had no interest in painting himself in any way or fashion. In fact, he not only didn’t care about the creation of a public identity, ethnic or not, indelible to his legacy, but he was happily invisible, playfully hiding behind his skeletons and skulls to express his pungent social and political commentaries. He had to. He lived, after all, during one of Mexico’s cruelest and most repressive dictatorships.  

Despite their differences, though, Posada and Kahlo have something crucial in common. If one could say that pain and tragedy are Frida’s ultimate subjects, Posada also deals with the same raw material but in a humorous way. And as long as Kahlo stuck to her pain and Posada to his skeletons and skulls, they were on firm ground: One became the most recognizable face in the history of art, probably only rivaled by the Monalisa; and the other one disappeared behind his calacas — because they did the talking for him. And they didn’t need and still don’t need any explanation since the imagery of death belongs perhaps to the most universal of traditions. 

Carlos Barón. Photo: Willy Lizárraga

Which doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t benefit from knowing, for example, that La Catrina, main character in this play, embodies the presumptuous sense of entitlement that Posada saw in many upper-class, Mexican woman of his time; but not knowing doesn’t prevent us from enjoying its comic, grotesque effect. 

Aside from Posada’s legacy, though, La Catrina & Posada: A Grave Dance is, for better or worse, also a play about the struggles of a professional artist who has chosen to live off making fun at public figures, a profession that requires extreme caution and tact so not to cross the invisible line that can mean the end of both career and life. That is, it is ultimately a play dealing with one of the juiciest of issues in history: the moral compromises that come with making an art of telling the truth as a joke (or as a fiction) in a world that almost always is at war with the truth. 

Fortunately for us, both Nikas and Barón seem keenly aware of history and are eager to make Posada’s predicament relevant to our time.