You’ve probably read these lines before: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do.” They’re the opening of Philip Larkin’s poem “This Be The Verse” (written in 1971). At first, they read like an indictment of parents who cause their children harm unconsciously, even innocently, as if inflicting pain were built into our genetic makeup. Then the poem shifts the blame and continues, “But they were fucked up in their turn / By fools in old-style hats and coats / Who half the time were soppy-stern / And half at one another’s throats.” Larkin doesn’t use the first-person singular to implicate his own family members, but he doesn’t have to — no one escapes the peculiar curse of having once had parents, not even parents themselves.
In Latin Standards, her 12th and — what she’s calling her final solo play — the comedian and performer Marga Gomez also casts a forgiving glance back at her late father’s life. (The portrait of her mother is less so … but more on that later). Under the stage name Willy Chevalier, né Wilfredo Gomez, her father’s raison d’être was show business. For a time, in the 1950s and ’60s, his Spanish language accomplishments in entertainment ranged from writing songs that landed Tito Puente and Trio Los Condes on the Latin Billboard charts to buying and reviving a theater venue, Teatro Latino, on 125th Street and Third Avenue in New York. In 1984, however, at the time of his death, his music career had faltered.
Gomez briefly attributes his career collapse to addictions — but she’s careful not to elaborate or linger on the unhappy details. Her natural instinct as a performer, and as a playwright shaping the material, is to make the audience feel good. As she jogged onto Brava Theater Center’s newly opened cabaret stage, her presence notably inspired affection from the audience. The feeling was palpable and warmed up the atmosphere in the room the way that firelight does. One of the themes that kept bubbling up in Latin Standards was community, specifically the queer and Latino communities. After having worked in the Bay Area for decades, she’s still fiercely committed to the idea of keeping tolerant, queer-friendly public spaces open in San Francisco by acknowledging that they’re rapidly disappearing.
But the framework of her show is personal and runs on parallel tracks. She recounts her own ambition to run a comedy night in 2012 out of the now defunct Esta Noche, the first gay Latino bar in San Francisco, while also fondly teasing the meanings out of her father’s songs. As the music plays in the background, she translates the Spanish lyrics in the context of her parents’ rocky, 12-year marriage and their inevitable divorce. She exhibits an unwavering pride in her father’s work but lovingly — and hilariously — mocks the melodrama in songs like “De Me Para Ti” and “En El Ultimo Escalon.” It’s in these anecdotes that her mother, a former chorus girl, receives funny but damning impressions. Having not seen all of Gomez’s work, it might be that her mother appears elsewhere in fuller emotional regalia.
And, obviously, Latin Standards focuses on Chevalier and what Gomez has inherited from him — a gift for entertaining people. But drifting about in these parental anecdotes a question mark remains: What were their childhoods like? In this play, she avoids parsing the Larkin line, “But they were fucked up in their turn.” There’s no mention of her grandparents or their influence, negative or positive, on their children. Admittedly, those stories might have muddied or cluttered up the show’s primary subject, a daughter coming to terms with her father’s legacy. But they could also be on hold for a memoir, screenplay or a 13th solo show sometime in the distant future. Or maybe it’s just none of our business. The problem is this — in watching Gomez open up on stage about her father and her career, she made everyone laugh and feel better for an hour and a half. It was actually sad to watch the house lights dim down, as we hoped against hope for an encore.
Latin Standards, through Jan. 28, at Brava Theater Center, 2781 24th St., 415-641-7657 or brava.org.