When I arrived at the theater, the director, J. Antonio (Tony) Mendoza, informed me that due to an unforeseen problem the house would be opening late. And the venue is actually in a residential complex, in the space of what used to be Wally’s Lounge, a local bar. The walls have since been repainted black, and it has become a very nice, intimate space that is very appropriate for the play.
Right before the play began Tony walked up front and said, “This play has been 11 years in the making. That’s a lot of time alone in my room.” Which is not quite true. Graham Cracker in fact originated as a one-act 11 years ago, written when Tony was in college, and it has been shown in a few iterations in the subsequent years.
The play derives its name from Mexican slang for a Hispanic person who acts white. They’re a graham cracker, much like the protagonist of the play, “mi hijo,” whose name is obfuscated, much like Uma Thurman’s character in Kill Bill. Graham Cracker walks us through the life of “mi hijo” growing up in a white Chicago suburb, with frequent flashbacks to his parents’ lives when they were his age.
While it may seem a little odd at first having one actor portray two people, occasionally simultaneously, Alberto Mendoza and Angela Vela both do a superb job so that it always feels very natural, and I never felt removed from the scene during a switch or flashback. Tony Mendoza told me that, had the projector been working, it would have been much more clear, but I never had any trouble distinguishing when things were taking place.
“Mi hijo” has to confront bullies, but later has a much tougher fight with his parents. “I was raised by three parents: Mom, Dad, and the TV. And the last is the only one that didn’t let me down,” he opines around the age of 12. His father calls him Graham Cracker, and his mother is usually absent because of her long work hours.
According to Tony Mendoza, “The script is 23 percent autobiographical. As I grew up and as the script evolved, our stories stopped mirroring each other.” The protagonist’s life is interestingly reminiscent of Tony’s in that regard since he is the third-generation male in his family to be abused by his father and marry his high school sweetheart, and while it appears he’s going to slip into the same pattern, he overcomes and becomes what his predecessors wanted to be.
Graham Cracker is about finding the balance between your heritage and your contemporaries, and what that means for you as a person. And even though the play is partially based on the life of director Tony Mendoza, I never felt that he was asking for sympathy or preaching a certain message, which is too often the case with autobiographical works. Graham Cracker is a drama with just the right mix of humor and romantic comedy thrown in. The play is well worth the trip up north, and there’s plenty to do in the neighborhood after the show. And be sure to take someone with you.