Salvage Vanguard Theatre’s “Casta” by Adrienne Dawes and co-directed by Jenny Larson-Quiñones and khattieQ (jk jk) at the Blanton Museum of Art is an ambitious piece of museum theatre performed by a talented ensemble cast.
It tackles casta paintings, a genre from 18th century New Spain (present-day Mexico) that depicted racial identities and classified the children of various racially-defined sets of parents in 16 labeled panels. The genre appealed to European obsessions with taxonomy and classification, and accordingly most of these paintings were created for export to Spain or for the ruling Spaniards in the colony. (The show is presented in conjunction with the exhibition “Painted Cloth: Fashion and Ritual in Colonial Latin America.”)
The play follows a young painter conflicted by the commission he’s received to create an exact copy of a casta painting. He doesn’t know where he fits in the prescriptive scenes in this painting because he’s unsure of his own racial background. Additionally, he is limited in terms of what he is allowed to paint by his apprentice status, and prevented from advancing by the exclusivity of the academy, which restricts the number of non-European students they admit. He takes the commission, but wants to experiment within the panels, to the dismay of his patron.
With his brush, the painter brings to life the families in the panels, summoning to the stage the actors that portray them. In some scenes, Spanish parents insecure about their position in the colony’s racial hierarchy are dismissive of their “India,” “Mestiza,” “Mulata,” “Negra” and “Morisca” partners and children, but multiple kinds of families (many unhappy in their own ways), and other aspects of life emerge too.
The produce and cuisine of the region appear in the vignettes as woven plushies, and folkloric stories, like that of the lorikeet, a talking bird, are included within the families’ conversations. Puppets represent the lorikeet and some of the children, while others are portrayed by actors. As in the paintings themselves, the scenes are dynamic, and they both reaffirm and question the culture that produced them.
In one such scene, the subjects of the casta panel are originally presented as a unified family, in which the parents are proud to teach their daughter three languages. When the painter’s patron rejects this vision of life in this casta, it is represented instead as a fight, according to casta painting tradition.
In other scenes, surprising nuances of the casta system are brought out. For example: How does an albino child fit into the racialized matrix? And, What do the categories even mean when, with the King’s permission, one can purchase the ability to legally pass as Spanish?
The well-researched play explores the limitations the casta system in Spain’s colonies and its connection to the institution of marriage placed on families and individuals, including in terms of gender presentation and the anxieties this version of white suprematism fueled.
Performed in the round in the museum’s two-story atrium, parts of the performance are hard to view, but a decorated square platform designed by Ia Ensterä elevates the performers. The museum’s echoey architecture makes some of the dialogue hard to decipher, especially as unfamiliar 18th century terminology mixes with English and Spanish, and some Nahuatl text, but the language adds to the experience, reflecting the linguistic diversity of New Spain.
Despite the challenges of performing in a museum atrium, “Casta” is insightful and educational, reflecting that identity always subverts categories and it contextualizes the present through a nuanced look into the colonial past.
“Casta” continues Oct. 27-30 at the Blanton Museum of Art, blantonmuseum.org/exhibitions-calendar/events-calendar/