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Cleveland playwright weaves call center and immigrant parents into ‘Alter’

Andrea de la Fuente at Cleveland Public Theatre in "Alter"
Steve Wagner
Cleveland Public Theatre
Maria, played by Andrea de la Fuente, is juggling work and family pressures in "Alter" at Cleveland Public Theatre. The Feb. 18 performance is COVID-conscious, with all patrons required to wear a mask. On Feb. 19, the performance will be preceded by a pop-up market.

Universal themes of growing up with immigrant parents and the pressure to succeed are part of Teatro Público de Cleveland’s latest production, “Alter,” running through Feb. 24 at Cleveland Public Theatre in the Gordon Square neighborhood. Cleveland playwright Tania Benites has been workshopping the script over the past several years.

“When I started writing it, I knew that I wanted it to take place in this call center - inspired by my many terrible customer service jobs,” she said. “I knew I wanted there to be some kind of thriller/horror elements. And I’ve always been fascinated with self-help culture, because that's something I was obsessed with growing up.”

“Alter” started as a collection of scenes after Benites took a CPT writing course in 2017. She later joined the theater’s Teatro Público, which just marked 10 years spotlighting works related to Latino culture.

“I was born in Peru and my family moved to the States when I was about two,” she said. “At the time, there was quite a bit of civil unrest in Peru, but also we did have family here."

Growing up with immigrant parents informed the personal relationships in “Alter.”

“I really wanted to bring in this dynamic of what it's like being an immigrant and being the daughter of immigrants,” she said. “The pressure that you feel knowing that your family has sacrificed so much to bring you to this country. ‘Am I doing good enough? Am I living up to the potential that my family saw in me?’”

Cast and crew of "Alter" at Cleveland Public Theatre
Georgina Galindo
Cleveland Public Theatre
The cast and crew of "Alter" at Cleveland Public Theatre (clockwise from top): Lionel Morales, Mónica A. Cerpa Zúñiga, Kari Barclay, Tania Benites, Alisha Caraballo, Andrea de la Fuente, David L. Munnell, Rajah Morales and Sylka Edmonson.

Maria, the main character, is not identified as Peruvian or any other ethnicity. But Benites said she is Peruvian in her mind.

“I wanted to leave that open for anybody to relate to those scenes, even if they are not specifically from a Latin American country,” she said.

Last year, “Alter” had a sold-out run as part of CPT’s Test Flight workshop program, which helps artists develop new plays. This year’s Test Flight in March includes “How to Live in a House on Fire” by Kari Barclay – a theater professor who is also directing the current production of “Alter.”

Benites spends her days working at the Cuyahoga County Public Library as a programming assistant. She said her love for books began at a young age.

“My favorite thing to do was to ride my bike to my local library, which was the South Euclid branch of the system that I currently work for,” she said. “It kind of came full circle without even meaning to.”

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.