From the heart: Brownsville Veterans Memorial One-Act Play company makes state

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The One-Act Play company from Veterans Memorial Early College High School is living a dream this weekend and making history as one of eight 5-A schools to qualify for the UIL state finals in Austin.

The company, which includes 15 actors and five crew, carefully packed the set into a U-Haul trailer and departed Thursday for Austin. At the finals they have seven minutes to assemble the set, 40 minutes to perform the production and seven minutes to take it down.

The play is “Con Mis Manos,” written by Misael Martinez, a bilingual production about how a Hispanic family comes to grips with their mother dying from cancer.

Set in Deep South Texas, the drama centers around the Gutierrez family. According to the program notes, the story follows David as he looks back at his father’s way of handling his wife’s illness. The show takes its title from the father’s assertion that “with these hands your Papi can fix anything.”

Except cancer.

From Left, Michael Wassen, Sergio Sosa and Julianna Nicart perform during the Veterans Memorial Early College High School one-act play “Con Mis Manos.” The play is a state finalist. (Courtesy photo | Veterans Memorial ECHS)

Sergio Sosa plays the father Esteban Gutierrez. Renata Trevino plays the mother, Josefina, and Michael Wasson, their son David, among other actors.

Veterans Memorial Theatre Director Juliana Topete said she performed in the play in an acting class at Texas State University and has been wanting to perform “Con Mis Manos” as a one-act play ever since she became theater director at Veterans six years ago.

This year she knew she had the right group, Martinez gave her the go-ahead and the UIL approved the play.

Topete said she has seen one-act play competitions and had yet to see real-life Hispanics portrayed on stage.

“I’ve gone to state before and seen how the Caucasians, the African-Americans are represented in their daily lives, and I hadn’t seen a show where the Hispanic culture was represented in their daily life. A lot of the shows that come through are about immigration, alcoholics, beaters of wives, and I wanted to show who we really are,” she said.

Julianna Nicart, left, and Sergio Sosa perform during the Veterans Memorial Early College High School one-act play “Con Mis Manos.” The play is a state finalist. (Courtesy photo | Veterans Memorial ECHS)

“We’re just like anyone else and we’re family and anybody can deal with this type of situation. … I wanted for people to like Esteban, to see the relationship between the son and the daughter, to see that the father, Esteban, really loves his wife and so when she passes, it’s really heartfelt because they were the perfect family and they were a young couple who were barely starting this life together. I think Misael Martinez, who is the playwright for this production really captured this, a Hispanic familia with all the characters.”

Sosa, a receiver and backup quarterback on the Veterans Memorial team that advanced to the final four in football, said Topete told him “I want you to take me as far as football took you.”

Topete, Sosa, Trevino and Juliana Nicart, juniors, and Wasson, a freshman, spoke with The Brownsville Herald about the play and the experience of going to state. Nicart plays the daughter, Jessica Gutierrez.

Sosa said they’re trying to keep things simple.

“We’re really trying to not change a lot, trying to get our story to the audience. We don’t want to put on a big show that’s gonna like take people’s eyes away. We want to touch the heart, so we’re focusing on getting the message across, making sure our facials, our line delivery are on point. We’re really just making sure we’re sticking to what we’re good at, not trying to do anything outside of the box. We’re really trying to stay in the box. We know that what we have is good enough and we have to believe it. There’s seven other schools besides us. Three judges look at our show, critique us, give us notes,” he said.

From left, Dante Prince-Mares, Dean McElyea, Pamela Quintanilla, Adrian Escobar and Gracie Avila perform during the Veterans Memorial Early College High School one-act play “Con Mis Manos.” The play is a state finalist. (Courtesy photo | Veterans Memorial ECHS)

Nicart, who is not Hispanic but grew up in the Valley, said her mother being diagnosed with breast cancer gave her a feel for the part.

“Thankfully, I didn’t have to experience the loss of my mother, but seeing her struggle with her disease and how it really took a toll on her life, it really does help put into perspective how my character would feel in this situation,” she said.

Wasson said he only signed up for a production class but reading the script led to him being cast for the role.

“It’s all been one big journey filled with moments that I didn’t think we would be able to progress to but we did because we’ve just got amazing people on our team. We have amazing chemistry with everyone,” he said.

Trevino, who has been in theater since her freshman year, said she came in super shy.

“I had really bad stage fright, but I saw the seniors at the time and they inspired me to keep going. They inspired me to stay in theater,” she said.

The cast of the Veterans Memorial Early High School one-act play “Con Mis Manos” assembles for a group photo. Bottom first row left to right: Michael Rodriguez, Renata De La Cruz, Michael Wassen, Julianna Nicart, Regina Flores, Paige Miracle; second row left to right: Vivian Ramirez, Pamela Quintanilla, Renata Trevino, Sergio Sosa, Adrian Escobar, Gracie Avila, Renata Gutierrez-Cruz, (Principal) Norma J. Canales; Third row left to right: (Assistant Director) Jesus Vasquez, Alexa Garza, Dante Prince-Mares, Dean McElyea, Sebastian Quintanilla, Achilles Ramos-Varela, Danna Melendez, (Head Director) Juliana Topete, (Assistant Director/Theatre Advisor) Anibal Villarreal; Fourth row left to right: (Assistant Director) Melissa Sosa, Christian Garcia, Pablo Balboa, Sebastian Quintanilla, Miguel Rodriguez, Allison Hernandez. (Courtesy photo | Veterans Memorial ECHS)

“Playing the one that’s dying, that’s been insanely hard to do. I’ve had a lot of critiquing. Judges have told me do more, do less, so it’s been a lot to find the perfect way to play that role, but honestly, I’ve learned so much as an actor from it. The last judge told me I was perfect,” she said.

“It’s genuinely an honor to be the first school in Brownsville to be able to make it to state in BISD. It’s incredible. I’m really proud of our team. Just go up there and make memories ‘cause we don’t know when this will happen, but it will happen, again,” she added.

Topete expressed similar sentiment, saying the team has been successful because of the actors, the theatrical crew, the directors, who include herself, Anibal Villarreal, Melissa Sosa (who happens to be Sergio’s mom) and Jesus Vasquez.

Villarreal is the previous theater director at Veterans.

“He has a beautiful way of creating set design. We used to be competitors when I was at Lopez and he was here. I admired his sets,” she said.

Topete also credited stage manager Alison Hernandez with being a behind-the-scenes presence and problem solver.

“This story impacts everyone because we’ve all dealt with a loved one who has gone through cancer, myself personally with my sister going through that and we’re blessed to have her. Everyone deals with it one way or another,” Topete said.

“This is the story of how families are able to help and support each other. In the Hispanic culture we don’t let anyone down. The show only calls for certain roles. Other roles I’ve created them because I want to represent the Hispanic culture. They don’t have lines but this is an ensemble that I added to the show because I wanted people to really get a grasp of what the culture is. We have the cousins, the tias, the tios that come to the barbecue. They are extra characters on stage so that they can enhance the story,” she said.

“This is the first time BISD goes to state. The superintendent came and saw the production and he loved it. I couldn’t have done it without (everyone.) They will forever be in my heart,” she said.