Amargosa: The Story of Marta Becket. Directed by Todd Robinson. Los Angeles: Triple Play Pictures, 2000.

La Bruja: A Witch from the Bronx. Directed by Felix Rodriguez. New York: Third World Newsreel, 2005.

Reviewed by Ann Newsom

In performance studies fields one of the primary concerns is how much of the gendered self is created through performative social interaction. The films Amargosa: The Story of Marta Becket and La Bruja: A Witch from the Bronx provide intriguing means of exploring that concept. The subjects of the films—dancer Marta Becket and performance artist Caridad “La Bruja” De La Cruz, respectively—are portrayed in their searches for their own voices and creative expression. The documentaries highlight the two very different modes each woman has chosen for her self-iteration as a female artist. The films provide a foundation for classroom discussion on everyday performativity intertwined with theatrical performance and the complex relationships these women formed with their audiences in local circles as well as larger society.

Todd Robinson’s Amargosa explores a woman’s efforts to showcase her creative voice. Marta Becket and her husband took a trip to the U.S. West and, as a result of a providential flat tire, were forced to stop in the tiny community of Death Valley Junction, California. Becket wandered into the old community opera house and there found her calling and iterative voice. She renovated the old building, creating a space for her own unique dance performances, and painted herself an audience on its theater walls. Becket’s choice was not easily accepted or understood by her New York dance community, her family, or her husband, who eventually left her. Yet Becket revels in her personal need to create this outlet for self-expression and her resistance to the expectations of others.

Students will recognize Becket’s performative resistance as reaction to feelings of abandonment by the male presences in her life and the restraints of the normative dance community. The backdrop of the declining rural mining town further highlights the precarious nature of her undertaking. The film also allows deeper exploration of the relationship between performer and audience and to what degree audience interpretation is required for a meaningful performance. Becket’s performances are for her own enjoyment and to allow her creative voice to flourish. Even the audience she painted for herself is there more to meet the standard conventions of performance than as a direct audience for her dances, songs, and comedic performances in the theater space. Becket explores her performances outside the need for audience interaction, which is not to say she does not appreciate her living audiences when they are present.

In contrast to Becket’s performances without an actual audience, the subject of Felix Rodriguez’s La Bruja: A Witch from the Bronx actively seeks an audience and audience approval, and the film is primarily a discussion of that artist’s struggle to bring her poetry to recognition. Unlike Robinson, who uses polished documentary techniques in Amargosa, Rodriguez takes a personal approach to the life of poet and self-proclaimed witch Caridad De La Luz. The home movie–style production echoes the precarious undertaking of the poet herself.

In classroom discussion this film evokes questions about the simultaneous freedoms and limitations of De La Luz’s dedication to her chosen performative outlet. La Bruja has found her personal voice and shares that with her supportive family and immediate community but struggles to find a larger audience. As is Amargosa, La Bruja is a useful pedagogical tool in its representation of a strong woman creating a uniquely feminine performance in her homespace, expanding it into the public eye, building her community through these efforts, and continuing that performance whether or not it is appreciated by normative society. This echoes the performance theories of Judith Butler and Philip Auslander, which examine how performances themselves gain meaning through audience interaction.1

These films represent contrasting approaches to understanding the significance of performance studies to feminist identity politics, with La Bruja seeking socialization as giving meaning to herself, and Becket redefining socialization and finding her own self-actualization. The films also serve as useful performance ethnographies that reveal pictures of two different lifestyles and cultures as they are explored by the female performers themselves. The films tell the stories of two self-determined individualists creating alternative voices through performance and dedication to their art, regardless of the challenges they face as they struggle to create and find their audiences.

1 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1999); Philip Auslander, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (New York: Routledge, 1999).

Dr. Victoria Newsom is an instructor at California State University, Los Angeles. Her work is situated in performance and gender studies and focused on activism and the performativity of global gendered identities. She is also involved in nonprofit foundation work bringing attention to issues of global slavery and the sex trade.