Actress Janet Borrus took a one-month substitute teaching job at Ramona High School in East Los Angeles because she needed the money. The one month turned into a year; and her experiences are the basis of a remarkably vivid theatrical collage of the lives of six teenage girls intertwined with her own. Assisted greatly by the insightful, economical staging of Lee Costello, Borrus, who is of Russian Jewish heritage, flows seamlessly out of herself and into the richly colorful and detailed personas of two African-Americans (Monique and Teresia) and four Latinas (Yesensia, Lizette, Patty and Carmen).
There is always a danger of caricature when one takes on the accent and personality traits of a member of a different ethnic group. There is not a trace of this in “The Ramona Roses.” A remarkable aspect of Borrus’ transformations is she immediately inhabits her characters, displaying each girl’s individuality, varying intelligence, emotional levels, body language and subtlely diverse speech mannerisms.
These are children who speak matter of factly about being gangbangers, being shot at and abused. Some have children of their own with fathers who are gone or are in jail. Yet much of the interplay of these streetwise young ladies is exuberant and hilarious, especially when they are coming up with reasons for not participating in gym. Monique writes down 10 excuses, all involving the disabilities inherent in having her period. An achingly naive Yesensia states with all sincerity, “I’m gonna have a baby, Miss. I’m 15 months pregnant. You just can’t tell because I do sit-ups.”
The throughline of Borrus’ chronicle is her own rocky personal life, which involves an unstable relationship, a haphazard acting career, financial woes and her admitted lack of training to deal with the girls under her charge. As she learns to cope, there is a constant evolution to her situation and her outlook as she moves in and out of the girls’ lives.
Of course, her “roses” take an active interest in the personal life of their teacher. When Carmen learns that Borrus’ boyfriend has ended their relationship, she nonchalantly offers, “Your boyfriend left you, and now he’s with your friend? You want us to kill him?”
The most poignant moment of this one-woman theater piece comes when Patty doesn’t understand a letter from her boyfriend in the military and thinks he might not care for her anymore. The boy, who has matured as an individual and in his love for Patty, tries to explain it to her by quoting from the New Testament passage in 1st Corinthians (“When I was a child I talked like a child. … When I became a man I put childish ways behind me”). After reading the letter, Borrus assures Patty that the boy certainly does still love her. Then she adds, only half kiddingly, “Does he have a brother?”
The highlight of the evening is Borrus’ depiction of the school’s annual Thanksgiving celebration, when the girls are allowed to bring their own babies to school and they are served by the faculty. Assisted greatly by Joe Romano’s beautifully realized sound design, Borrus is surrounded by the voices of the girls of Ramona High, which she recorded during the Thanksgiving festivities.
Onstage, Borrus, masterfully interacting with the recorded voices, simulates being interviewed by her students, talking frankly about her own life, her sexuality and her dreams. Fittingly, Borrus ends the evening by trying to do the dance steps the girls have been teaching her. As the music volume rises, Borrus proves she can move very well.
The simple set and lighting designs of Dan Reed, enhanced by the high school gym scenic painting of Jessa Throop, were a great asset to the flow of this stage work.