I haven’t had a chance to get to a show at the Justice Theatre Project this season. Since last I was there, there have been a couple of changes: a new artistic director, Jerry Sipp, who has been connected with JTP in one form or another for years now; and a new venue, Umstead Park United Church of Christ, located on Brownleigh Dr., just one step in from the Umstead Park entrance. This is a gorgeous “sanctuary church,” all the more relevant for this show in particular. Josefina Lopez‘s Real Women Have Curves examines the lives of five Latinas trying to get by hand-to-mouth in a sweatshop situation.

While there is ample room in the theater for a much larger set, the set for this show has been designed to be cramped and crowded. The locale is a dressmaker’s shop in the Latino section of LA, where Estela (Marina Enslen) is attempting to make a go at owning her own business. But all is not well on-site; the company with whom the shop has its only contract is run by a woman who is attempting to take advantage of Estela by asking for ridiculous deadlines and offering slaves’ wages for the dresses only upon completion of the project. Life in Estela’s shop is difficult, to say the least. Estela only employs four women, and two of them are her mother and her sister. She hasn’t been able to pay them in months, because the factory she bought her equipment from is demanding payment and threatening to sue if Estela doesn’t catch up to her agreed-upon payment schedule.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that, despite all five applying for legal status, Estela still is not “legal.” Because of a ridiculous charge made to stick in her youth, Estela has a criminal record, and because of that, she did not take the last step of finalizing her application. So, while all four of her employees are now enjoying their newly found freedom, Estela is still undocumented. The threat of ICE descending on the shop is still a very real one. It makes all five jumpy, because their newly-acquired documentation is still too new for them to remember not to hide every time they think ICE is nearby.

Life in Estela’s dress shop is not the idyllic situation Estela dreamed it would be. Now, at the height of summer (102 degrees), Estela cannot even afford to buy a fan to help cool her employees. It is a situation that would demand all four of the group refuse to work, but because of their situation, and their loyalty to Estela, all four remain. But the sweatshop atmosphere does little to improve the lives of these four newly documented ladies.

Of the four, Carmen (Jenny Doyle) is Estela’s mom, a little woman who is nonetheless overweight because of her years of childbearing. Weight is a problem for all five of these women, so much so that Rosali (Jamie Gonzalez) is living on diet pills in an attempt to become a “Size 2.” Ana, Estela’s sister (Valery Arevalo), has just graduated from high school and wants to go on to college to become a writer. But her current situation doesn’t bode well for that prospect. She feels trapped in an age gone by, where Latina women, like her mother, are expected to marry and bear and rear children. The alternative, at least at the moment, seems to be sweatshop work or no work at all. The same holds true for the fifth member of the club, Pancha (Carol Machuca), who fears she will never marry; she has yet to even lose her virginity.

The performance we are witnessing is a staged reading. Nevertheless, with the exception of the presence of scripts, this show barrels along as if a fully-staged production. The show lasts 100 minutes without intermission, as the five attempt to make 100 dresses by Friday, the contractor’s absurd deadline. There are many a late night, partly because Rosali, due to her diet pill intake, passes out at one point and must be rushed to the hospital. Since she is the only one who knows how to operate a critical piece of dressmaking equipment, the deadline is that much harder to meet.

These five actresses are accomplished women in their own lives, supporting JTP’s theme this season of “Empowering Women.” Doyle, the only member of the cast who is not Latina, is nevertheless completely familiar with the onstage situation, as she grew up in her mother’s sewing shop and relates to it on many levels. She is an immigration attorney who holds three degrees and is multilingual, which aids her with Carmen’s motherly comments made in Spanish. Arevelo is a Rights Advocate for farmworkers and immigrants with a company she co-founded. She is a two-degree Meredith College graduate as well as a singer/dancer/actor. Enslen is a successful performer/director who has worked with Stageworks, the White Iris Light Opera, and Oak City Voices, among others. Carol Machuca is an engineer by trade; this is her first foray into acting. And Jamie Gonzalez has plied her career in acting since her graduation from UNC-Charlotte with a degree in Theatre Performance. She has worked for Walt Disney, the Clayton Youth Theatre, as well as on indie films. These five talented and accomplished women make Real Women Have Curvesvery complete, despite it being “only” a staged reading. As an actor who grew up in Reader’s Theatre and Oral Interpretation, this reviewer can truly appreciate the stellar performance of this quintet.

This staged reading of Real Women Have Curves touches on a number of extremely salient points, in this age of mass deportation and immigration crises. If you are concerned with the current political situation and wish for real immigration reform, arm yourself with the plight that these five women work to overcome. It will broaden your horizons immensely.

JTP’s Real Women Have Curves is scheduled for only four performances: three this weekend at Umstead Park UCC plus a performance on April 14 at the Herbert C. Young Community Center in Cary. For more information on this production, please view the sidebar.