star of Don't Eat the Mangos
Marilet Martinez at the house where she grew up on Kansas Street. Photo by Erica Marquez

Marilet Martinez remembers reading maybe 15 pages of Don’t Eat the Mangos before she “was like, ‘Oh my God, I have to do this play.’” Drawn to its rawness and intelligence, she loved how Mangos was “hard the way that family can be hard.” Martinez, who calls herself “mid-coastal,” with a “foot in the Bay and a foot in Chicago,” was born and raised on the edge of the Mission in the same house her mother grew up in on Kansas Street between 22nd and 23rd streets. 

She’s been living in Chicago for the last two years, pursuing her comedy career, touring with her award-winning improv troupe Ratas De Dos Patas. But on February 26 through March 22, the actor and improv standout is back in San Francisco for a turn as Wicha, the youngest of three sisters in the rolling world premiere of Don’t Eat the Mangos at the Magic Theatre, written by Ricardo Pérez González and directed by David Mendizábal. The play is about a Puerto Rican family dealing with the emotional fallout of damaging secrets come to light, forced to engage their buried trauma and attempt to heal. The play also stars Yetta Gottesman as Ismelda and Elena Estér as Yinoelle with Wilma Bonet as Mami and Julian López-Morillas as Papi. 

Martinez attended the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria, California before returning to San Francisco where she worked in children’s theater by day and performed in theaters like Crowded Fire, Impact, Cutting Ball, and others. at night. Although proud of the work, and the opportunity to be in new plays by up and coming writers, she had a hunger to indulge a different side of herself, describing how five or six years ago, she “came out of her improv closet,” because put succinctly, “I wanted to make stuff up and have some fun.”

It’s notable when talking to her that she’s a person unafraid to follow her gut and pursue what feels right. Much like her embrace of comedy and improv, her move to Chicago was from a desire to “scratch an itch I’ve had for a long time.” It was a city she was always interested in, the breeding ground for many of her favorite comedy legends. She took the plunge with a workshop at Second City, and the rest is history. 

Martinez first met Mangos writer Ricardo Pérez González and director David Mendizábal through Sonia Fernandez, the associate artistic director of the Magic Theatre and dramaturg on the play. Fernandez invited Martinez to be a part of a reading at the Virgin Play Festival in 2018. 

González and Mendizábal have a deep and successful relationship, dating back to when they were both in school together. Mendizábal remembers “the first project we worked on he was an actor and I was a costume designer … our relationship has traversed all different mediums in theater.” 

Most recently, Mendizábal directed another world premiere, of González’s play On the Grounds of Belonging at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. Martinez talks about the joy in witnessing their shorthand and communication via micro-expression. She praises their generosity and openness to what the actors bring to the table as they’ve developed this show.

Both González and Mendizábal are queer Puerto Rican men with strong relationships with their sisters, both joking that they grew up feeling like the third sister. Mendizábal says they’ve been talking about the “idea of a three-sisters play” for a long time. 

Indeed González says it all started as a single scene he scrawled out ten years ago in a “fevered rage dream” and then abandoned. He corrects himself, “It might have been, you know, eight years ago.” Regardless, he shares that it “poured out of me and I just couldn’t go back to it.” 

That is, until the Sol Project: A National Theater Initiative (of which Mendizábal is a founding member and the associate artistic director) approached him. The original scene that González wrote was inspired by his consideration of the violence in his family and generational trauma. Beginning with his great-great-grandmother, “Violence was rendered onto her and her family, and then she rendered that violence on to her daughter,” and so on until that “legacy of trauma” was passed down to him. He says that he’s always had the story and image of his bisabuela in his head. 

González feels there is still “a lot of humor in this play but it deals with very dark scenes.” He believes Martinez’s balance of strong comedic sensibilities with dramatic skills is what makes her Wicha so essential. “When she brings that vulnerability and grounded-ness, it’s heartbreaking,”  Mendizábal says. “Comedy terrifies me, but having someone with those chops” is crucial to balance out the heavier moments of the play. 

Martinez fully embraced the challenge of exploring this character and tapping into this family dynamic, learning to “live in what’s not being said.” She talks about seeing things through the eyes of her character, detecting “at any given moment what are the hierarchies and statuses at play in the room.” Part of her process has also been reexamining her relationship with her own sister. Don’t Eat the Mangos is a personal experience for all involved.

Though González, Martinez and Mendizábal all separately lament the changing demographics of San Francisco and its impact on the arts, they also celebrate that there’s an ability to take risks with a new play here. “There’s a heartiness to the theaters like the Magic that are here and doing bold and brave new work and kind of give no fucks,” González said.

Mendizábal appreciates having the “space for exploration,” where in New York with a new play, “you’re not really given permission to fail.” Don’t Eat the Mangos is a welcome reminder to appreciate new plays that are alive and raw. Before we end our phone call, González tells me he’s off to the first big tech run. Then, with a laugh, adds, to be “re-traumatized by my own work.”

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