‘Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name?’ explores cultural division in the US at The Marsh in Berkeley

Woman in red shirt speaks with expressive hand gestures.
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“Maria” is Irma Herrera’s Starbucks name. She opens her one-woman show “Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name?” with a joke about relying on a traditionally easy-to-pronounce name that still represents her Mexican heritage even while engaging in the simple task of ordering a cup of coffee. This joke garners immediate laughter, either from those who could personally relate to the situation or from those who understand the tendency to avoid attempting to pronounce a name that falls outside of the Eurocentric norm.

“Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name?” is performed and written entirely by Herrera herself. In it, she chronicles her life story, from growing up in the small town of Alice, Texas to becoming a civil rights lawyer and journalist. Using the frequent mispronunciation of her name — it’s pronounced “EAR-ma,” not “err-ma” — as a narrative thread, she tells of what it is like to grow up in the United States when you have such strong ties to your heritage. “Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name?” premiered at The Marsh in Berkeley on Feb. 3 and will run until Mar. 24.

Herrera discusses the struggles of navigating inquiries from other Americans about her cultural background — especially considering that both she and her parents were born in the United States. She jokes about people asking, “But where are you really from?” or “But where were your parents born?” — the answer to both being Texas. Yet, because her family has maintained strong ties to its Mexican heritage, her American upbringing has always been complicated, marked by a “foreignness” she feels she doesn’t actually possess. She remarks that her hometown was segregated in practice, with the clear separation of her Mexican-American and white peers. Even though she went to school with white kids, she argues, their lives were entirely separate outside of the classroom.

Conceptually, the play is extremely strong. Each encounter or detail Herrera describes is recognizable and acts as a lead-up to our current political climate. At one point, Herrera narrates a business phone call she had in which, after giving her name, the person on the other line said, “You’re foreign. I’m not talking to you.” It’s simultaneously shocking and unsurprising to hear, and it is even more upsetting when it is revealed that this event took place a mere seven years ago. Each beat of Herrera’s story is striking and resonant, clearly representative of so much more than just one woman’s story.

Herrera’s performance of her own story is heartening to witness, seeing as the play’s material is so poignant in its nature. But Herrera herself is not a performer. In the context of her recounting her life story, this may not matter, as her narrative and accomplishments are laudable on their own. But, in the context of the theater, Herrera’s lack of performance experience is noticeable, and at times, quite distracting.

In instances in which the play shifts toward the historical context of Herrera’s actions, her narrative is put completely on pause in order to explain external events. In these moments when Herrera merely explains the facts, she places herself even further from a performative nature. Not only do these contextual moments act as a separation from the narrative — instead of being intricately woven into her personal story — but they cause the play to resemble a lecture or talk more than a theater show.

These issues ultimately beg the question: What matters most when turning real life into a staged narrative? Herrera’s concept of social messaging in narrative form undoubtedly drives the show — it is a vital, singular story that is still representative of a larger political situation. Yet, it is worth wondering if a stronger impact could have been made if a trained actor had performed these scenes. After all, this is a theater show — not a TED talk — in which performativity should be at the center, whether or not the source material for the performance is someone’s actual experience.

At the end of the day, Herrera’s message in “Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name?” leaves a lasting impact — an undeniable goal for all productions, whether there are trained actors at the helm or not.

Contact Nikki Munoz at [email protected].