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Latina women command center stage in ART’s ‘Real Women Have Curves’

Satya Chávez (left) and Lucy Gondínez rehearse a scene from "Real Women Have Curves: The Musical." Gondínez plays Ana, the strong-willed teen at the center of the story.Ken Yotsukura/Photo by Ken Yotsukura Photography

When Tony Award-winning Broadway choreographer Sergio Trujillo first encountered “Real Women Have Curves,” he instantly fell in love with the Latina women at the center of the coming-of-age story. The 1993 play by Josefina López — about the fraught relationship between a rebellious-yet-striving teenager and her tradition-bound mother, who toils as a seamstress at a dress-making factory — was transformed into a 2002 movie that gave actress America Ferrera her breakthrough role and won two Sundance Film Festival awards. Growing up in a Toronto family that faced similar challenges, Trujillo says the story was deeply personal.

“I connected with it because my family actually immigrated from Colombia to Canada and were undocumented. They called it ‘illegal’ back then. My mom worked in a garment factory making jackets, so she experienced [immigration] raids,” says Trujillo. “I made a decision a few years ago that I wanted to really find ways [to] empower and give a voice to the Latin community. I’m not a political person, but I want to have a hand in igniting conversation. What I can do is make noise through the art.”

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Having choreographed the Broadway musicals “Ain’t Too Proud,” “Jersey Boys,” and “On Your Feet!,” Trujillo had been searching for material to adapt into a musical with his producing partner (and husband) Jack Noseworthy. The two immediately responded to the lived-in, naturalistic rhythms of the play and film. “The women in that factory, you fall in love with them and you root for them,” Trujillo says. “So I wanted to pay homage to all of the women who play a hand in our lives and inspire us.”

Director and choreographer Sergio Trujillo (right) with assistant Alex Tobey.Maria Baranova

The bold, big-hearted show that emerged, “Real Women Have Curves: The Musical,” is now receiving its world premiere from the American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama in Cambridge, through Jan. 21. Directed and choreographed by Trujillo, the musical boasts an original score by Grammy Award-winner Joy Huerta (of the Mexican pop duo Jesse & Joy) and Benjamin Velez and a book by screenwriter Lisa Loomer (“Girl, Interrupted,” “Roe,” “The Waiting Room”). It’s headlined by Lucy Godínez as tempestuous teen Ana, the role made famous by Ferrera in the film, and “One Day at a Time” and “Six Feet Under” star Justina Machado as her headstrong mother, Carmen.

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Set in 1987 in the Boyle Heights enclave of Los Angeles, the story centers on Ana, a Mexican-American high school senior, pushing back against the expectations of her family and community as she seeks to carve out her own path. That puts her at loggerheads with her mother. An accomplished student, Ana dreams of going to college in New York City and starting a journalism career, but Carmen believes Ana should stay home and work at their garment factory, run by sister Estela (Florencia Cuenca), a budding designer with big ideas of her own. There’s also a vivid group of women who work at the factory, including two cousins and a young Guatemalan refugee.

“You have this child that wants to break out and leave home but feels guilty because the other people in her family don’t have the same opportunities that she has. And the mother is desperately trying to hold her family together, even if she’s doing harm and doesn’t really understand that,” explains Machado, who played single mom Penelope in the 2017 reboot of Norman Lear’s “One Day at a Time.”

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With its pop and Latin-flavored score, the show celebrates real women’s bodies, in all their curvaceous glory. Ana, who has learned to accept herself, rebels against her mother’s criticisms of her weight and the social pressure to have a “perfect” figure. “The curve is almost a symbol for how women can go around things and embrace them and how women have their way of meeting the curvy roads in life,” Loomer says. “So it’s not just about the body.”

In adapting the material, Loomer made a key change to the character of Ana to amplify the stakes. Ana’s family members are all undocumented, so the fear of deportation is real, but Ana herself has been granted citizenship. “I did this partly to put Ana more at odds with her family,” she says. “I have a line in this version that says, ‘Being the child of immigrants, it’s like being born in debt,’ and a lot of the musical explores that. I thought, boy, if you’re the only citizen in the family, then your debt is even greater and it’s even more complicated.”

After Trujillo approached Loomer about writing the adaptation, she began thinking about how the story speaks to the present day. As Loomer watched Kamala Harris accept the Democratic Party nomination for vice president in 2020 and thank her immigrant mother, a lightbulb went off. “This is a story of brown women, immigrant women coming into power in the United States, and the first people they thank are the women in their family, the women whose shoulders they’re standing on. That struck me as really the message of the play. It’s about a young woman trying to forge her own life, her own identity in contradiction to what her mother may want for her. So how do we break away, but also what do we carry with us of our family and our culture?”

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While audiences will be transported to the factory floor and the family’s home, Trujillo and scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado also wanted to root the story in Boyle Heights to give it a strong sense of culture and place. That includes scenes that unfold in Mariachi Plaza, a neighborhood locus where mariachi musicians perform. “We were inspired by the iconography of the plaza and its history of mural paintings,” Trujillo says. “So we’ve created a colorful mosaic to support the storytelling.”

For Machado, acting in the musical represents a stirring full-circle moment. She played Ana in the world premiere of López’s play in 1993 at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theatre. When Trujillo approached her about taking on the role of Ana’s mother, she was hesitant at first. Yes, there was the “nostalgia” factor of returning to this formative play in her career. But, she explains, “I never really thought I would fit Carmen. Probably because I had a long history with the play, I didn’t quite see myself in the part. But I thought, okay, if I can add a little bit of me and just make it a person that I understand, then I think I could do it.”

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Now 51, the same age as her character, it’s taken her some time, and a little digging, to find her way into the part and make it her own. “What is my version of Carmen? I’m trying to bring my life experience to it and bring humor and these different levels, and not just be a mom who’s mad and telling her daughter she’s fat all the time!

“I want her to be human and not one-sided. This is a woman who loves her daughter tremendously. She says the wrong things, but has all the right things in her heart. So it’s a journey for her, too.”

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.

REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES: THE MUSICAL

Presented by American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge. Through Jan. 21. Tickets from $35. 617-547-8300, www.AmericanRepertoryTheater.org