La Llorona
Manuela Osorio (on violín), Sara Hernandez (on guitar), Luz Nicolas, Gabby Wolfe, Fabiolla da Silva in We Happy Few’s production of La Llorona; Credit: Mark Williams Hoelscher

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Even if you didn’t watch horror mastermind Ari Aster’s sensational 2019 film Midsommar, you may be familiar with its critically acclaimed and infinitely memed crying scene. Having just witnessed an immense betrayal, Florence Pugh’s character, Dani, bursts into tears. Seeing her, a group of women from the commune where she’s staying usher her into a room, and her wailing escalates. Then, in a bizarre gesture of empathy, the women embracing Dani begin to mimic her cries. Their voices crescendo into a symphony of weeping.

The scene sprang to my mind during a particularly arresting moment in La Llorona, an original play by We Happy Few company member Gabby Wolfe, currently being staged at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. Esperanza, the story’s protagonist (whom Wolfe portrays), has just received harrowing news that brings her to her knees. As she cries, a few women with scarves draped over their heads come to her side. Then, in unison, they let out a pained wail.

It’s not the only time a woman is seen crying wildly onstage, and I expected no less from a production called La Llorona, which literally translates from Spanish to “the weeping woman.” 

For the uninitiated, La Llorona is also the name of a ghost of Mexican folklore whose story has spread far and wide in the Spanish-speaking world. The details vary, but her legend traditionally contains the following plot points: On earth, La Llorona was a mother of numerous children who, one day, in a fit of rage, drowns them in a river to spite their father, who has betrayed her in some fashion (the specifics of his infidelity depend on who’s telling the story). Devastated by her own actions, she then drowns herself. 

But instead of entering the afterlife, the woman is sentenced to life on earth as a murderous veiled ghost in a white gown, who mourns the loss of her children with eternal cries. Families have passed down her tale for centuries, often in an attempt to keep young children from roaming the streets alone at night. 

The endurance of her story is captured in La Llorona’s opening scene. The play’s six-actor ensemble stands scattered across the blackbox. Some of them wear 16th-century garb, others are in jeans. Gazing into the distance, they offer details of the traditional La Llorona legend, talking over each other in both English and Spanish until their sentences are hard to distinguish.

Then, Wolfe’s reimagining begins to take shape. It starts with an angsty teenager (Sara Hernandez) who gets in a fight with her mom, Esperanza. The teen storms off into the night, where an eerie veiled woman haunts her. She dashes back to her tía (Cristina Sanchez), who proceeds to tell her La Llorona’s tale.

In Wolfe’s version, that tale stars Esperanza, a poor campesina living in an unidentified Latin American village, where she runs a seamstress operation with her sister. Her life gets turned upside down when Hernán (Victor Salinas), a dreamy Spaniard who’s in town to take over his family’s mining business, waltzes into her shop. As the pair’s love for each other strengthens, so does colonialism’s brutal grip on Esperanza’s community. Hernán and Esperanza find themselves on opposite ends of a rebellion, and their love story takes a ghostly turn.

Gabby Wolfe in La Llorona; Credit: Mark Williams Hoelscher

The show is an impressive feat for a cast of six. The five women in its ensemble are in constant transformation—in addition to their primary characters, then become pedestrians, ghostly figures, and inanimate objects wielding little more than a few pieces of fabric. Hernandez does particular heavy lifting as she moves from stubborn teenager, to sympathetic campesino, to little girl, offering a captivating performance as each. Luz Nicolás commands the stage as Doña Elena, Hernán’s domineering aunt, and makes for a particularly hair-raising ghost.

Seated in the back corner is a seventh person: Manuela Osorio, a talented, top-hatted musician who injects La Llorona with frights and feelings using a violin, a guitar, and a haunting instrument called a waterphone, which is like the sophisticated cousin of the instrument you create when you run your finger along the rim of a filled wine glass. The offstage presences of a directing trio—Kerry McGee, Rachel Dixon, and Esteban Marmolejo-Suarez—as well as set designer Megan Holden and costume designer Sabrina Simmons, are felt throughout the show in a number of cleverly staged scenes that create clotheslines, rivers, and rifles out scarves.

La Llorona is a ghost story, but the ghost isn’t the only one doing the scaring. Wolfe’s retelling bestows a fabled monster with an unusual dose of empathy, and makes room for women to cry. Though their weeping can be chilling, the reasons for their tears are far more sinister. Ultimately, this weeping woman is not only someone to run from, but someone to cry with.

We Happy Few’s La Llorona, written by Gabby Wolfe and directed by Kerry McGee, Rachel Dixon, and Esteban Marmolejo-Suarez, runs through Nov. 19 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. wehappyfewdc.com. $10–$25.