Personal becomes political -- and funny

Personal becomes political -- and funny

A Cat Named Mercy’ takes a darkly comic look at the nation’s health-care crisis

By Carl Kozlowski 02/05/2014

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Josefina Lopez has been a successful playwright for more than 20 years, with her play “Real Women Have Curves” turned into an acclaimed movie that launched the career of “Ugly Betty” star American Ferrara. But her latest play, “A Cat Named Mercy,” was inspired by a much darker moment in Lopez’s life, when she was denied health insurance because she had been treated years before for cervical cancer and was subsequently classified as having a pre-existing condition.   

Teaming up with South Pasadena resident Hector Rodriguez as director, Lopez created the play after winning a 2013 grant from the California Endowment to address the topics of health care, the Affordable Care Act and the remaining uninsured. The production runs through Feb. 23 at the CASA 0101 theatre in Boyle Heights, and both Lopez and Rodriguez spoke with the Weekly about the genesis of and meaning behind the play. 

“I was inspired to write ‘A Cat Named Mercy’ after hearing a television news report about a cat who could predict impending deaths in a nursing home,” explains Lopez, who helped found CASA 0101. “I also recently read a story published in the New York Post on the same subject matter. In addition, I wondered what would have happened to me if I didn’t have insurance and had Stage 4 cancer. What would I do?  How would I get treatment? Would I go to Mexico? What would I do out of desperation?”

“Mercy” is a dark comedy about Catalina Rodriguez, a licensed vocational nurse (LVN) working at Elysian Estates Nursing Home who gets her hours cut, becomes uninsured 
and is in desperate need of an emergency operation. With the help of a cat she names Mercy, she is divinely guided to do the unthinkable to save her life.

“The play deals with someone in 2010 who has a pre-existing condition to show the ridiculousness of what it is to not have health insurance and the extremes a person has to go to when they’re dying,” says Lopez.” I show you the ridiculousness of how desperate a person can get. If you wind up in jail, you get full coverage. There was an actual story of a man who couldn’t get health insurance so he robbed a bank to go to jail and save his life. It’s ironic and without a chance to plan, you are in desperation.” 

For his part, Rodriguez was drawn to work on the production because he’s a resident director at CASA 0101 and directs a few plays each year there. But he had also collaborated with Lopez on two of her prior plays and found that her ability to find the element of humor in even her more serious plays “was a challenge that attracted me.” 

A native of Texas who fell into directing theater after a friend asked him to volunteer on a CASA 0101 production of Lopez’s “Curves,” Rodriguez is a resident director there now. His past background includes extensive video work for major music artists, ranging from Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross to Queen Latifah, and Boyz II Men, whom he filmed during an Australia tour. 

“CASA 0101 is Latino-oriented because of the Boyle Heights neighborhood,” says Rodriguez, who likes the “small-town feel just 15 minutes from downtown” in his own current hometown of South Pasadena. “Josefina grew up in Boyle Heights and wanted to bring theater to the neighborhood. They have a lot of Latino-oriented plays and the theater offers classes in screenwriting and acting to anyone on a low-cost donation system.”

Rodriguez also appreciated the ability to work on a play about a hot-button issue like affordable health care, and both he and Lopez hope the production has a real impact on audience mindsets. Experts from the Covered California program, which is the state’s Affordable Care Act exchange, will be in attendance to answer questions after each Saturday night performance of “Mercy.” 

“I write about very personal issues, but my work is very political but always about how it affects the human being so it’s personal and intimate,” says Lopez. “For a feminist, the personal is political and in the play you see how some personal things going on are really political, but it’s not hitting you over the head. You sit back and then realize ‘wow.’ You change people’s minds through their heart, not their head.” 

“A Cat Named Mercy” is performed at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 5 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 23 at CASA 0101 Theater, 2012 E. First St., Boyle Heights. Tickets are $15 to $20. Call (323) 263-7684 or visit casa0101.org.

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