Interview: Arturo Luís Soria on Playing Mother in Ni Mi Madre
The writer-performer's long-gestating solo show makes its world premiere at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.
Arturo Luís Soria has been studying this role for a lifetime. That's because, in his new solo play, Ni Mi Madre, he portrays his own mother, Elizabeth ("Bete" for short). She might deny that the character is her, but Bete, an opinionated Brazilian immigrant with an extraordinary mixed family and a highly theatrical gay son, has a story that was made for the stage.
‘'Ni Mi Madre'' tells the story of a woman who leaves Rio de Janeiro and a strained relationship with her own mother to form a new family in the United States. The furious improvisation of child-rearing is made even more complicated by the pressures and expectations of a strange culture, where ideas like "time out" and "ADHD" clash with Bete's more traditional upbringing.
The solo play is now performing at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, the first live production to reopen the beloved off-off-Broadway venue. This is also Soria's first time back onstage since the Broadway run of The Inheritance ended back in March 2020.
I spoke with him about the genesis of Ni Mi Madre and what he has learned about his mom in the process.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How long have you been playing your mother?
I started to write this play in 2008. I was in a solo performance class for undergrad, and we had to churn something out every week. I can't remember exactly what the prompt was. It was something to do with childhood. I started to write about mine, but from my perspective — and it wasn't funny. So I was frustrated, and one day, I said, "You know what...forget it. I'm gonna put on a dress and I'm just going to talk like my mother." And it worked! So that's how it began. This current version took shape at Yale Cabaret with Danilo Gambini, the director.
What does your mother say about it?
She laughs...and she cringes. She'll say to me, "That's not me. That's a character you created." But then she'll proceed to give me five notes after every performance, things like, "I wouldn't have said it like that." And I'll say, "But mami, didn't you say it's a character I created?" And she'll say, "It is...but the character would say it like this."
As the play has developed over the years, it has gotten a little deeper. I think those moments can be hard for my mom. But after seeing this production, she told me she really enjoyed it. I mean, she bought out a third of the house.
Not a difficult thing to do at Rattlestick.
Yeah! She bought 25 tickets to see it on Saturday. They all loved it and they loved her. It's always nice when people after the show want to meet her and congratulate her. I think that makes her feel good.
What does the title mean to you? Is it "not my mother" or "nor my mother?"
In Spanish, it's both. There's a line in the play where Bete says, "I wasn't ready to face my past, nor my pain, ni mi madre." Nor my mother. I believe that in order to move forward, we have to look back. We have to be able to face that which came before us to have the knowledge, wisdom, and strength to move forward.
Do you think that kind of retrospect is a privilege? One of the themes to emerge from this piece is the immigrant hustle that doesn't allow much time for self-reflection.
There's a truth to that. It was really true of my parents and grandparents. They came and they worked. I think about my mom saying, "I didn't have time to look back. I had to keep you alive." So that's a sentiment that exists within my immigrant family. I think of my dad's mother: She sold everything back in Ecuador to save the life of her mother. For her, it was a no-brainer. She had to think about the present. So I do think reflection is a privilege. I haven't had to make a long voyage like that to save my family. I'm reaping the benefits of the choices they made. I've been privileged enough to grow up here and pursue my dreams of being an artist and actor — which to them is like, What are you doing? An actor? You're going to be poor.
So they weren't always supportive of this career path?
My mother always was! She said, "If you're going to do it, then do it. And make sure you can live off of it." Luckily, I have been fortunate enough to be able to do that.
As an actor, I imagine stepping into a role gives you a certain amount of empathy for your character. Was this true of playing your mother?
Absolutely. I learned a lot, and I keep learning things. I was 21 when I started. I was trying to make sense of my childhood. That was a period in my life when I realized my parents weren't superheroes. They were human. This play gave me the opportunity to understand and humanize my mother — and my grandmother, whom I never met. I was rewriting the script and learning more up to the last minute of this production — things I wasn't able to understand at 21, because I hadn't lived enough yet.
Other members of your extended family make cameo appearances in Ni Mi Madre. Are there other plays in here?
There are! I have something else cooking that would tie into the family. But I won't say much for now. The other characters in the play are quite explosive in their own way, and that deserves some air time.