Catey Sullivan has been writing about Chicago theater for more than 25 years. She is a contributing writer at Crain's Chicago, Chicago Magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times. She's been published in Playbill, Pioneer Press, the Chicago Tribune and numerous other outlets. She has an MFA from the University of Illinois.
Eddie Martinez, Sari Sanchez. Photo by Liz Lauren
By Catey Sullivan
A premiere by Sinaloa-born, long-time Chicagoan Tanya Saracho is always cause for anticipation. The author of “Kita y Fernanda,” “Our Lady of the Underpass” and “Enfrascada” has long been known hereabouts for her witty, insightful work and her ability to create characters that are easy to empathize with.
It’s been a few years since she picked up and moved west. Now the showrunner for Starz’ upcoming “Pour Vida,” Saracho’s TV credits also include stints on “Girls,” “Devious Maids” and “How to Get Away With Murder.”
With “Fade,” she offers a glimpse into the life of a Mexican-American television writer struggling to find her footing in a field (and a building) where Latinas are all but unheard of. As Lucia (Sari Sanchez) tries to deal with being the “diversity hire” at a big-time TV studio, she strikes up a friendship (sort of) with the only other Latinx in the building: Abel the janitor (Eddie Martinez).
Directed by Sandra Marquez, this 90-minute two-hander has both a predictable plot and an ending that feels abrupt and unearned. Saracho’s script is engaging, but it is shallow both in terms of character and story. Marquez keeps the pace moving at a swift clip and “Fade” is entertaining enough. But like a lesser TV sitcom, “Fade” is thin and not terribly memorable.
Beyond a shared ethnic heritage, Abel and Lucia have little in common. Their relationship is prickly at the onset: Lucia talks about the maid she had growing up, blithely assuring an incredulous Abel that these days, “everyone” in Mexico has a maid. “Even the maids have maids,” she informs him. Abel counters that she’s a daughter of privilege, and that attitude smacks of assumptions and cluelessness. She’s disbelieving when he tells her he knows people who have been passed over for jobs simply because they were Mexican. “Really?” Lucia says, “Still?”
When Lucia tells him they have to stick together and be “militant” about speaking “the Mother Tongue,” Abel’s side-eye game goes off the charts. Abel has to go back two full generations before coming to an actual Mexico-born Mexican, a fact that throws the sweep of her preconceived notions about him into stark relief.
Predictably, Lucia and Abel eventually warm to each other. When Lucia weeps and rages about her treatment by the other writers and her boss, he provides a sympathetic ear. Abel’s ability to hear and see Lucia in a building where she’s largely invisible (unless someone needs a translator to explain housecleaning procedures to their maid) ) prove empowering. Soon, she’s gone from crying over the certainty that she’s going to fail at this new job to soaring past her colleagues and becoming a power-player in her own right.
Lucia’s ascension up the corporate TV ladder is largely due to Abel. Her willingness to both use him and then set him aside forms the narrative arc of “Fade.” Without resorting to spoilers, the plot developments are visible as soon as Abel offers up a confessional of his own troubles.
But predictability isn’t the only problem with Saracho’s script. In the final 20 minutes or so, a third character pops up: We never see or hear “Gary,” but his life suddenly becomes crucial to the plot and Lucia’s emotional state. Gary’s sudden importance feels weird, and a bit sloppy. When a character is this pivotal to the plot, he needs to be more than simply a topic of conversation.
Lucia’s metamorphosis from fish-out-of-water to sleek, ruthless executive doesn’t feel earned either. Her bearing, her wardrobe and her position all shift drastically in the final moments. The change isn’t entirely believable in part because it’s so abrupt and so utterly transformative.
Still, Martinez and Sanchez deliver engaging performances. Lucia’s flurries of self-doubt and her all-consuming bursts of creativity will be recognizable to anyone who has ever worked at a job that was initially overwhelming but ultimately became profoundly fulfilling. Martinez gives the comparatively taciturn Abel an almost Gary Cooper-like reserve. When it finally cracks and we hear Abel’s story, it’s a moving moment.
The best part of ”Fade” lies in Lucia’s descriptions of the racism and sexism that are as common as air in Hollywood. Only 29 percent of television screenwriters are women (per the program notes), and those that dare to broach the entrenched bro culture face trial-by-fire simply by showing up. Lucia is basically going into battle every single day that she comes into work, especially (as she notes) given the reality of “Trump’s America.”
But instead of really digging into that battle, “Fade” gives a tidy, television episode version of it. You’ll leave “Fade” wishing Saracho had dug deeper, both in terms of Lucia and Abel and in terms of the state of women in television.