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Lisa Ramirez is an actress who spent a few years in New York City, to be close to art, particularly the theater. But her day job while she took classes and attended tryouts was that of Nanny. Her new work, Exit Cuckoo, is the tale of what she went through and who she met during her trial by fire in The Big Apple.
Ramirez brought her one-woman show to PRC2 this past week, packing the house and raising the roof with hilarious characters and terrific characterizations of women in New York City. Her show looks at the profession of Nanny from a variety of viewpoints, from the woman who runs the business Lisa works for, to the old Jewish woman who must make a play date in order to see her grandson.
Ramirez comments on the trend nowadays of women having their children raised by other women. She speaks, through one of her characters, of the cuckoo, who lays her egg in another bird's nest, and the other bird raises it as her own. Ramirez says that, as long as there is a woman with money, another woman who needs money, and a child between them that needs rearing, a Nanny will always be required.
Ramirez tells her story through a series of characters, mostly other nannies, who have tales to tell of how they have become surrogate caregivers for New York mothers. From the park benches in Central Park we meet Rosa, who has been sending money home to Mexico so her son can build their house. He has sent word that the house is done, and Rosa is going home. She tells Lisa, from her park bench, to get out of nannyhood. The nanny, she says, gives all her love to someone else's child, and is never appreciated for all the love she gives that child. Rosa tells Lisa that part time nannying is full-time work; full-time work is all the time; and live-in work means that the nanny will never again see the light of day.
Lisa goes to therapy; there she deals with the psychologist who leads the group and several of the women who share the group with her. She also attends a rally that strikes for domestic workers, demanding sick leave and time off and overtime. The rally leader says that caregivers are excluded from the labor laws, vulnerable to abuse, and isolated in the workplace. Lisa discovers that she is empowered by the women in the rally.
Ramirez tells the story from both viewpoints. She becomes the woman who is at work when her baby takes her first steps; the woman says she felt kicked in the stomach. Why was it necessary for her to be away at work while her child grew up without her? Her nanny had even videotaped the event for her, but it was not the same. Or there is the woman who had detached herself from raising her child, retreating into alcoholism. These mothers seem universally unhappy at being separated from their children. And yet they pay another woman to raise them.
Ramirez tells us that she, too, was raised in part by a nanny. She also speaks of her adult relationship with her mother, who writes poetry. Her mother would bring a poem to her, while she was growing up, that would mark a milestone in her growth. She remembers her mother's poem for when she first "became a woman," a moment that frightened her terribly because she thought she was bleeding to death. Later in the play, she takes her mother's poems to the hospital where her mother lay, and she reads them all to her. She realizes that her mother is indeed a fine writer, and she realizes that it is through this caregiving that she has come to realize it. Her journey has come full circle.
Exit Cuckoo is a compact but quite brilliant work, that examines the role of Nanny from multiple viewpoints, and allows the viewer to see the myriad facets of the job in the harsh light of day. It is a necessary but not very attractive position, as a surrogate mother to other people's children. But it is also a role that is vital to bringing up children in modern society, because the role of mother has changed so drastically. Ramirez is delightfully strong in her characterizations, and immensely entertaining. But she is also not one to pull her punches; being a Nanny has shown her that Domestic Caregivers are a rare breed who deserve better than they have gotten. As Ramirez tells us as she closes the show, "Marching with these women woke me up."