Out of the Woods: The Sins of Sor Juana

Posted November 4, 2020

Melisa Ronald Web

APT will kick off the latest round of virtual play readings in this newest edition of "Out of the Woods," launching this Friday with Karen Zacarías' The Sins of Sor Juana. While we're waiting for the premiere, check out this interview with director and APT Artistic Associate Jake Penner on what it was like to introduce Juana Inés de la Cruz to a new audience.

If you’re an APT regular, you’ve likely heard company members remark that great poetry is written for everyone. That sentiment is as true now as it was 400 years ago, and there may be no greater proof of that truth than Juana Inés de la Cruz. Though her career took place in Mexico in the 1600s, her writing remains vital and immediate, covering topics like love and sex; feminism and philosophy. Her outspokenness was not always easy, but it was always beautiful. And when she began her career in the court of Mexico City, she was only 16 years old.

Juana Inés de la Cruz
You would think that such a fascinating figure would be woven into the fabric of our culture. But in the United States, that’s only beginning to be true, and started with the rise of Feminism in this country. In a recent interview, APT Artistic Associate and The Sins of Sor Juana Director Jake Penner called Juana a “legendary cultural figure in Mexico…and she may be well-positioned to gain a more notable degree of influence in the West. In fact, it’s already been happening: Juana is now widely considered to be the first Feminist writer in the West, an opinion first posited by Feminism’s 20th century pioneers, and one that seems to have endured.”

While we may be behind the curve in the US, Juana has long been revered in Mexico – her likeness has been displayed on currency, as well as in museums and parks throughout the country – and she’s credited with mastering a wide range of poetic styles during the Spanish Golden Age.

Jake said, “That a legendary cultural figure in Mexico can be completely unknown in the United States really speaks to the power of border walls — literal as well as intellectual. But as we’ve begun to reexamine Western History through a non-Eurocentric lens, we’ve started looking for voices that didn’t quite make it into modernity with the same robustness as their more well-known, i.e. Western European, counterparts. And asking ourselves why? She seems just as accomplished as her European peers. She was able to keep ongoing correspondence with Enlightenment era thinkers like Isaac Newton – and she really did do that – so why haven’t her contributions been recognized to the same degree?”

The Sins of Sor Juana
As we go about righting those historical wrongs, Juana has gradually made her way into the American zeitgeist. A recent resurgence of her plays, including a virtual production of The House of Desires by Hedgepig Ensemble Theatre and directed by Melisa Pereyra, who plays Juana in APT’s play reading. There was also a Netflix series about Juana (sadly, no longer available in the US). And a number of recent plays about different aspects of her life, including The Nun and the Countess by Odalys Nanin, The Heresy of Love by Helen Edmundson, and, of course, Karen Zacarías’ The Sins of Sor Juana.

Jake said he tends to prep for directing a play by asking himself two questions – “What’s this play about?” and “What’s this play actually about?” On the one hand, Jake says, “The Sins of Sor Juana is about a real-life 17th century Mexican nun who takes up residence in a convent in order to continue publishing her writing, gets into trouble for doing so, and then must figure out how to get back out of trouble while maintaining the life she’s created for herself.”

The second question, though, doesn’t often have a simple answer. “It tends to traffic in the abstract,” Jake said. “What evergreen aspect of human nature is illuminated by this play, and how is our understanding deepened as a result? As I got to know this play, I was struck by how often Juana was forced to compromise. ‘You’re allowed to be a public intellectual, Juana, but only so long as you get married. You’re allowed to get married, Juana, but only so long as it’s not the man you actually love. You’re allowed to reside — and write — here in the convent, Juana, so long as your writing doesn’t contradict the Church.’“

“But those compromises compound,” he continued. “They build on each other until Juana is eventually faced with a compromise that, in fact, compromises who she is at a fundamental level. And because she is an artist, a conduit through which truth is given voice, risking compromise at that fundamental level risks compromising Juana’s vision of what the world can be. And that’s a compromise she, and I’d argue all persons of true integrity, cannot abide."

In The Sins of Sor Juana, the compromises Juana was forced to make as a woman and an artist made her relationships increasingly tricky to navigate. Through the course of the story, Juana loves and is loved by many. But that love more often than not comes with strings attached. “I thought about this a lot going into rehearsals,” Jake said. “A part of my spirit didn’t want for Juana to be subject to the whims and desires of the characters around her. But as we worked our way through the play, I started to understand Karen Zacarías’ design: that Juana’s strength must be viewed through the context of the time in which she’s living. So Juana’s strength must ultimately spring from a kind of conscious inaction. Protest is perhaps a better word for it. Juana’s climax becomes about wresting her autonomy back from those around her by refusing what’s being demanded of her. And Juana Inés de la Cruz cements her place in history as a result.”

In order to do that, Juana had to come to terms with her work and her life, past and present. And in doing so, Zacarías created a sort of literary time machine. “Without giving too much away, the trunk that Xóchitl drags onstage in the play’s opening moments serves as a portal to Juana’s past. Now, whether that portal is literal or not — or as literal as you can expect any time travel mechanism to be in a play of the ‘magical realism’ genre — is very much up for interpretation. But either way, the effect is more or less the same: Juana has locked key elements of her younger self away, and those elements are about to spill out into Juana’s conscious awareness once again, thereby affecting her present-day circumstances.“

The final question we asked Jake (“Is there anything else you’d like to add,” per Journalism 101 rules) seems like a good place to end, so we’ll leave you with his response.

“Please take care of each other.”

The Details

Watch here on the PBS Wisconsin website beginning November 6, 7:00 pm CT

The Sins of Sor Juana
By Karen Zacarías
Directed by Jake Penner

Featuring Melisa Pereyra as Juana, Janyce Caraballo as Novice, Triney Sandoval as Padre Núñez/Viceroy, Ronald Román-Meléndez as Silvio, Jeliannys Michelle as Madre Filothea/Xóchitl, Cher Álvarez as Sor Sara/Vicereine, Sebastian Arboleda as Pedro.

Voice & Text Coach: Joy Lanceta Coronel
Scenic Designer: Nathan Stuber
Stage Manager: Jacqueline Singleton