‘Don’t Eat the Mangoes’ Is Exorcism for Trauma

A new play set in Puerto Rico finds healing from colonialist legacy and family secrets.

In Don’t Eat the Mangoes, there’s a cleansing. Following a storm in Puerto Rico and the revelation of family secrets, three women hold hands over burning sage, and sound — children laughing, a bedtime story — rushes through the stage. Don’t Eat the Mangoes follows sisters Ismelda, Yinoelle, and Wicha in a family drama that mirrors the colonialist relationship the United States has with Puerto Rico.

“It poured out of me in a feverish rage dream,” says Ricardo Pérez González, the playwright of Don’t Eat the Mangoes. Pérez González penned the first scene about seven years ago. Years later and with some help from the Sol Project, an initiative that promotes Latinx playwrights, Don’t Eat the Mangoes had its world premiere at Magic Theatre.

It’s a special moment for San Francisco, according to director David Mendizábal, considering that there tends to be a “coastal divide, especially among Latinx stories” in theater. 

“When we think of Latinx stories on the West Coast, we think of Chicano and Mexican stories,” Mendizábal says. “And when we look at stories on the East Coast, we think of more Caribbean stories.”

Yetta Gottesman and Elena Estér star in “Don’t Eat the Mangoes” at Magic Theatre. Photo by Jennifer Reiley

“What’s really unique is the opportunity to bring this play by this Puerto Rican playwright that takes place in Puerto Rico about this Puerto Rican family to the Bay,” Mendizábal says.

Creating this play was deeply personal for Pérez González, and at times, harrowing. Don’t Eat the Mangoes draws upon legacies of familial abuse, in particular a story about a bisabuela in Pérez González’s family who shares a similar experience with one of the women in the play. 

“I actually did find myself 100 percent being re-traumatized during rehearsal,” Pérez González says. “I had to snap myself out of it several times.”

But Pérez González points out that revisiting these sites of trauma can also be healing. “It’s a double-edged thing,” he says. “Just doing it was an act of exorcism.”

Reliving traumatic stories on stage can be a fraught experience, one that’s consistently demanded of women and people of color. Mendizábal points out that in Don’t Eat the Mangoes, the healing process takes center stage.

“In many ways this play is about trauma and the patriarchy, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Mendizábal says. “I think what [Pérez González] is really trying to say was resilience and this sisterhood really provides the tools to begin the healing process.”

Finding the balance and tension between “the horrific and hilarious” plays an important role. “In every scene there’s a murder weapon,” Mendizábal says. But there’s also humor and joy in the most surprising circumstances.

“I firmly believe that humor is a necessary tool for healing. It’s a necessary tool for us to open our hearts and to feel more deeply,” says Pérez González. “It’s a necessary tool for this play.”

All of these layers — the traumatic legacies left by imperialist powers on Puerto Rico or by cycles of familial abuse, the loving dynamics between sisters who can seem harsh on the surface — can be traced back to the very first scene of Don’t Eat the Mangoes. It’s the very first scene Pérez González wrote for the play, and it’s almost entirely in Spanish, something key to the creators.

“A lot of Spanish isn’t translated directly, and we realized that could be alienating for some audiences,” Mendizábal says. “And I think we’re okay with saying that this is not your world. However, you can see yourself in it.”

Don’t Eat the Mangoes, through March 13, at Magic Theatre, Landmark Building D, Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Blvd. $20-$75; 415-441-8822 or magictheatre.org

UPDATE: Don’t Eat the Mangoes is closing early on March 13 due to coronavirus concerns.

Grace Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at gli@sfweekly.com.

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