Family secrets have a way of coming back to haunt us. In the play “Secret Things,” the family mystery doesn’t date back decades, or even generations. It reaches deep into the past, five centuries back to the Spanish Inquisition. Playwright Elaine Romero came upon the story of conversos or crypto-Jews, those who were forced to convert to Catholicism or face torture or death, but surreptitiously kept and passed on Jewish religious practices for hundreds of years from father to son, mother to daughter. Until no one knew why a grandmother lit a candle on Friday night, or a family never ate pork or blood sausage – a popular Mexican dish, or a daughter was told to sweep the floor to the center of the room and not out the door. Today, some researchers are delving into these and other customs in Hispano communities descended from Spanish settlers in Texas and northern New Mexico, before these places became states.
Playwright Romero told a writer for Albuquerque’s Alibi that she by chance met researcher and historian Stanley Hordes at the Santa Fe (N.M.) Historical Archive. An expert on crypto Jewish history that traced anusim (Jews forced to forsake their faith) who fled Mexico’s 16th-century Inquisition, which was an extension of the Spanish Inquisition. These Conversos settled in what is now northern New Mexico, where some purport their ancient Jewish practices remain.
In “Secret Things,” on stage through Dec. 12 at 1st Stage in Tysons, Va., Romero toggles between history and fantasy. Her hard-nosed protagonist, reporter Delia, wants to expose these so-called hidden Jews, remnants from the Inquisition in Spain, to cold-hard facts that she’ll uncover. The Latina daughter of proud New Mexican parents, she returns home determined to settle the uncertainty of the crypto-Jewish history once and for all.
But Romero knows a thing or two about researching history, particularly complicated family histories of emigration, displacement and hybrid identities. That means as much as “Secret Things” conveys its story as a journalistic procedural, a rich underpinning of magical realism makes Delia’s quest more compelling. For history, we are reminded, is far more than a singular account of the victories of those in power – in this case the colonial Spanish Catholic conquistadors. Thus, the magic – whether they are ghostly apparitions or Delia’s own vivid imagination – lives with and alongside the history, in this case in the form of a dream-like aunt (Luz Nicolás) – deep voiced, long locks, clad in effusive scarves and skirts – who introduces the reporter to an unheard, perhaps even unknown family history and an mystical place called Sephardia.
Delia has other secrets in her heart; she’s seeking a soul-mate and her former lover/current boss Ben is not “the one.” In New Mexico’s desert, she meets Abel (Luis Alberto González), who carries his own secrets, but he wishes to share this story of Hispano communities and individuals with hidden or unusual practices that they may not even realize are remnants of their ancestors’ Judaism. One look and Abel sees the familiar genetic features that distinguish crypto-Jews in Delia’s face. At once her reportorial quest conflicts with her denial of the possibility that her own family has secret Jewish ancestors. She’s told her mother’s strict “hyper” Catholicism suggests something more that piety to the faith.
As much as “Secret Things” follows Delia – played with verve by Alina Collins Maldonado – on a reporter’s quest to uncover the truth about crypto Jews in the Southwestern desert, it’s also a tale of self-discovery. While she battles her own inner demons about love and acceptance, she leans in to mend a rift with her parents and find self-acceptance. Thus, the less-than-believable aim that her expose on conversos in New Mexico will be the biggest story of the year for Time magazine gets a pass, but in an error where most news is disseminated via social media and sound bites, this is the least credible aspect of the script.
Director Alex Levy uses set designer Jessica Alexandra Cancino’s bi-level set with its Spanish-influenced balcony and mossy vegetation along with Ethan Balis’s ethereal musical accompaniment to allow Delia – and the audience – navigate two worlds. She is on a search for a companion and partner but is also seeking to come to terms with the past in a way that won’t haunt her present-day life, but enrich it. Alas, “Secret Things” runs without an intermission, and at nearly two hours, that’s simply a long time in a theater seat.
Even so, at this moment when the North American Jewish community is re-examining the dominant hold that Ashkenazi European history and tradition maintain in communal life, “Secret Things” reminds us that other Jewish stories and histories are equally important and deserve to be shared, savored and reflected upon.
“Secret Things” by Elaine Romero through Dec. 12 at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Road, Tysons, Va. For tickets and information, visit www.1ststage.org or call 703-854-1856. Theater-goers will be required to show proof of vaccination and photo ID and wear masks. The seating is also socially distant, allowing for 52 patrons.