It seems impossible to be a comedy fan and to have not heard of Sandra Valls, Diana Yanez and Maria Russell but if you count yourself among the minority, The Latina Christmas Special is here for you. Combined Artform & Atomictuna Productions have brought these three hilarious women together to share touching and surprisingly personal Christmas stories of holidays past told in one-woman show format. Promising to become a holiday tradition for Los Angelinos, Valls, a Mexican America from Laredo, Texas – Yanez, a Cuban American from Miami–and Russell, the daughter of an over-dedicated Mexican mother and compliant Lithuanian father, share their sassy tales of the season as first generation Americans.
With widely recognized talent, seen on Margaret Cho’s Sensuous Woman Show (Yanez), The Latin Divas of Comedy (Valls) and Howie Mandel’s: Deal with It (Russell), these woman have adapted their funny to this theatrical format and are thrilled to present it to audiences for four shows only before the 2013 Holiday Season. Yanez, a stand-up comic hailing from the “other” Cuba (,Miami Beach, Florida), took time out of her holiday preparations and birthday weekend to give me a little background on her start in comedy and what brought these three powerhouses together.
Wondering where a little Cuban girl from Florida found her stand-up comedy aspirations, I asked where she found her funny. In hindsight, it seems like a silly question, seeing that family is such an important part of both honing comedic chops and what makes us laugh.
“I can’t imagine anybody saying that Cubans have a hard time laughing,” Yanez says. “It’s just part of life with us. No matter how dysfunctional we can be (and believe me, I’ve had my fair share of family dysfunction) there has always plenty of room for laughter growing up in Miami. I get a lot of my humor from my parents. They don’t see themselves as funny, but they are hilarious. Dad is great at doing imitations and voices and Mom is the master ‘exagerada’–that roughly translates into ‘exaggerator.’ She is so extreme that it’s a downright delight to hear her tell stories.”’
Aside from her familial roots, Yanez also lists Carol Burnett, Lily Tomlin and Gilda Radner as her comedic heroes, and it shows. Like these women, Yanez considers herself a storyteller, her onstage persona being an extension of her own personality.
“I’m a storyteller,” Yanez says. “The step up into the one-woman show style comedy was a very natural one for me. When I first started finding success in stand up a few years ago, it was my girlfriend that pointed out that I was bordering on one-woman show material. The moment she said it I had flashes of the Whoopi Goldberg solo show, Lily Tomlin’s The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe and John Leguizamo’s Freak. I knew immediately, I wanted that. See, I am passionate about stories and sometimes, unfortunately, stand up leaves us hanging. Stories are not just funny–to me, the best ones are poignant and have a message. I remember noticing that when I saw Terms of Endearment–it was my first rated R-movie and I laughed as hard as I cried!”
What her stories also offer is a sense of who she is and where she comes from. Yanez isn’t one to shy away from the responsibility to educate the general public on the being a first generation Cuban-American queer woman in comedy and the finer points of bilingual dirty jokes.
“I like people to know that the word in Spanish ‘culo’ to Cubans means ‘the butt,’” says Yanez. “However, if you are speaking to Mexicans, don’t say, ‘Hey, I’m Cuban so I have a big culo’ cause you will not get the reaction you expect. That’s because to Mexicans ‘culo’ means ‘butt-hole.’ Surprise. Yes, I can save you from these embarrassing moments.”
She continues, “Funny stuff aside, you wouldn’t believe how many people come to me after a show and tell me that they are encouraged by my story. Especially when I do college shows. See, my brother is gay too and there are only two of us. When he came out in the ’80s that meant to me that I had the responsibility of being the ‘straight’ one and a very long journey to self-acceptance began. Hence, the title of my solo show, Viva la Evolución!”
Yanez’s ability to move audiences with her unique stories and personal triumphs along with the fact that comedy comes so naturally to her can make it easy to forget the she is a trailblazer. She is on the oft-discussed rise of women in comedy forefront, making waves one Christmas special at a time.
“I don’t know how everybody else feels but I think women are ROCK STARS,” Yanez exclaims. “Hilarious, touching, smart, deep… Oh yeah, that’s probably why I’m also a lesbian. And yes, I do get annoyed at the lack of options for Latinas in the industry. Out of every 10 theatrical auditions that I get, eight of them are to play maids or nannies. WTF? That’s why we have to create our own opportunities, stick together and support each other. That’s why I decided to produce The Latina Christmas Special.”
Not only is this Christmas special a labor of love, it also allowed Yanez to gather some of her favorite comedians, those that make her laugh, together to create something magical.
Sandra VallsPhoto by Jacquelyn Kennedy Photography
“I went out and got me the best two funniest ladies in the world: Sandra Valls and Maria Russell to be in my show,” Yanez says. Sandra and I met each other when we were both working on Logo’s Outlaugh on Wisecrack. I was an immediate fan of her intelligent outrageous comedy. And then I’ve been a fan of Maria’s work since back in the ’90s. She’s a sketch and improv diva.”
Maria RussellPhoto by David Noles Photography
“I wanted to create opportunities for myself and my fellow Latin and queer performers,” Yanez says. “And the concept of this show came about in much the same way it will be expressed on stage; we were telling each other funny stories about our hilarious and crazy Christmases with our Latino families. It would have been a sin not to share it with the rest of the world. Amen.”
Without spoiling the show, Yanez teases that celebrating the holidays with her family was, “Haunting, disturbing, traumatic and perfect. Coño!” When asked if there was anything further she wanted to share about the show, she said, “We open this Thursday. We are just creating the set now. It’s hard work but I’m happy. It’s a little wish come true.”
Past the holiday extravaganza, she has plenty of other shows in the works. “Viva la Evolución! will continue to tour and I am looking for a theater to host the West Coast premiere. I have a couple TV pilots I’m working on as well. And then there’s my next one-woman show, working title: Wait A Minute—I Thought I Was White!”
Performances of “The Latina Christmas Special” will be held at Theatre Asylum – Elephant Space in Los Angeles on December 12, 14, 19 and 21. For more information check out the event Facebook page and follow the performers and venue on Twitter (@MariaRussell, @theatreasylum, @dianayanez and @sandravalls). Tickets are available at Theatre Asylum.