Calafia Begins

In December 2013, I learned that the State of California was probably named after a mythical Island of California which appears in 15th and 16th century Spanish lore. In the most popular story by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, the island is occupied by an Amazon-like race of dark-skinned, warrior women whose queen is Calafia. I found myself fascinated by this fictional woman - the leader of her female-only tribe. I was fascinated that someone who was both a woman and a woman of color was presented in such a mighty, awe-inspiring, and typically masculine way.

Unfortunately, the story of Calafia doesn't end the way I would like. She converts to Christianity in the end and marries a man, ultimately showing that the ways of the Lord can subdue even the most brutish of savages. No. Thank. You.

Fortunately, Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo himself gives me a way around. The backdrop of Calafia's story is the battle for Constantinople between the Byzantines and the Ottomans in the 1400's. History tells us that the Ottomans defeated the Byzantines in 1453 and took back this important city. However, in Montalvo's story, it is the Byzantines who are victorious. Read: it is the Christians who defeat the Muslims in his version.

I figure, if Montalvo thought it fit to change history in order to suit his storytelling desires, then I don't particularly feel the need to stay absolutely true to his story. Read: In my adaptation of Calafia, she will not be submitting to a man or converting to Christianity. I actually don't yet know what Calafia will be doing in my adaptation. But one thing I do know: I want the show to feature a "wall of women" as its primary musical source.

So what does that mean? A month ago, I had only vague notions. But in May 2016, I invited eight incredible female actors to join me for what I called a "voice and sound exploration workshop." Thanks to support from the Playwrights Foundation, I was able to get time and space to conduct the workshop. Since this will be a story about a race of isolated women who never actually existed, I was intrigued by how to find sounds that were simultaneously primal and other-worldly.


We often typify women's voices as higher-pitched, softer and sweeter. But women's voices are so much more dynamic than we give them credit for. Sure they can soothe, squeal and scream, but they can also shriek, groan, grunt, moan, command and overpower. And let me tell you, these actors did not hold back in exploring all of these sounds unabashedly and freely. I found myself utterly speechless at moments as I beheld what the eight of them could bring out from within them. I am utterly thankful to these colleagues for being willing to experiment, be vulnerable and weird, and to let me listen to them for three hours.

I'm not entirely sure what this all means for the next steps of Calafia. I only know that I've now taken a huge creative step forward by having this sound workshop. Calafia is officially my next musical theatre project.