Why do they keep crossing the border? Slide projections of hate-graffiti flash by on a back wall screen: “We Are Against Immigrants,” “Get out, Nicaraguans,” “Illiterate Immigrant,” followed by by a newspaper headline, “Three Costa Ricans Held in Nicaragua.” Border crossings taking place between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, two Mesoamerican countries are unusual for us yet we don’t often hear about racial discrimination in Latino countries.
The Immigrants is based on true events included in a 1997 newspaper article, “I am also Nica,” by Costa Rican Rodrigo Soto. Jose Mejia Espinoza (Cesar Melendez) crosses a border into Costa Rica,that offers jobs but discriminates against skin color. He’s hungry and wants to send money back to his wife, Maria. Jose, is an archetypal immigrant who is having a rough time of it.
When Cesar Melendez, who is the dynamic actor and author of this dynamite one-man show, enters as the title character, his stage presence immediately grabs us. He’s wearing dirt-splotched, torn jeans and a T-shirt, imprinted with “PURA VIDA,” a Costa Rican idiom for “pure life.” What that means to a Tico, or native of Costa Rica, is that no matter how little or how much you have, life is short. So enjoy. Melendez as Jose limps across stage and vents his rage to a table-mounted crucifix with a plaster Christ: “Where were you when I needed you?” he shouts.
What follows is a series of vignettes in a richly layered narration in which Jose talks to the crucifix as if he’s going through a Catholic Act of Contrition. The horrific irony is that he is asking for forgiveness for acting like a caring human in a corrupt society. His vignettes feature Jose’s daily humiliations, his struggles to live a life of dignity, an enjoyable life, a “pura vida,” as a human being. Jose’s stream-of-consciousness confessions to Christ reveal to us what his life really is. The point is when it comes to the immigrant’s experience, there really is a disconnect. We come to understand the physical risks, the loneliness, isolation, persecution and bullying that goes on in the daily life of a stranger in a foreign culture.
Here’s just one: a day in the life of an immigrant. With total physicality, Melendez re-enacts a day at work. His boss ordered him to break up the sidewalk with a black mallet. Everything was fine until several other guys started disrespecting him, by calling him “bad names” and “ignorant immigrant.” The only thing that prevents Jose from burying the mallet in his tormenters’ skulls or gouging out their eyes is his recall of the great Nicaraguan poet, Ruben Dario, who lived from 1867 to 1916 and ushered in an outspoken, new poetry style. “Virtue lies on being calm and strong….” This riff becomes a refrain throughout the play and reminds Jose to stop and not contribute to the violence in Nicaragua’s history.
So why does Jose continue to come to Costa Rica? Because Jose is filled with doubt about the Christian value of turning the other cheek when his people back home are dying of hunger. Jose is worried about Christ who sits on the right hand of a Father and causes violent natural disasters in Nicaragua, his native country. Nicaragua is a country plagued with massive earthquakes, (Managua in 1972); tsunamis, floods, droughts, volcano eruptions, hurricanes. Even worse, the Nicaraguan Revolution in the 1960s through the 1980s wrecked havoc. This was the period when the freedom fighters (the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional, FSLN) threw out Somoza’s 46-year dictatorship in 1979. What followed was the 1980’s debilitating civil war. What then was the replacement for spiritual faith?
When religion fails, making money becomes the replacement for spiritual faith. And if that means emigration, then so be it. Christ is replaced by the Boss or Chief as the hope for a job. In the pub scene, for instance, the Boss invites Jose to have a beer. And, it is as if the pub replaces the sanctuary of a cathedral.
The must-mention, highpoint stinger that is the most moving, satisfying theatrical moment is Melendez’ sensitive reenactment of Jose’s family’s border crossing. Melendez’ soft-pedaled intensity is blistering, accompanied by screen projections, gurgling sounds of rushing water. The scene is an unforgettable cry for compassion. Believe me, when Melendez pulls out all the stops, his sweat effort to win freedom virtually oozes from his bone marrow. His final diatribe thunders with passion and resoundingly conveys the indomitable power of the human spirit. Remember to bring a box of Kleenex.
With his performance as Jose, Melendez proves he’s a great talent. There’s a reason Teatro de la Luna’s artistic director Mario Marcel and his producer/wife Nucky Walder have invited him back to perform El Inmigrante for the third time, a command performance. (He was seen before at the International Hispanic Theatre Festival in 2005; then a repeat engagement in 2006.) The Life Force just pours out of Cesar Melendez. And this play that starts with Nicaragua ends up applying to all foreign countries.
— Performed in Spanish with simultaneous English translation through headsets. —
There are three remaining performances: Friday 24 at 8pm and Saturday, 3pm and 8pm at Gunston Arts Center-Theater Two, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington, VA 22206. Friday night post-show discussions following performances.
Details and tickets here
El Inmigrante (The Immigrant)
Written and directed by writer-performer Cesar Melendez, co-founder of Teatro La Polea in Costa Rica
Produced by Teatro La Polea from Costa Rica and Teatro de la Luna
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Running Time: 100 minutes without intermission.
El Inmigrante inaugurates “The Moon’s Embrace,” (“El Abrazo Lunar”), a new 4-week festival, of 4-plays from 4 countries: Spain, Argentina and Uruguay are coming up in subsequent weeks. All plays are in Spanish with either live English dubbing or surtitles. From February 23 to March 17, 2012 with Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evening performances at 8 P.M. and one matinee at 3:00 P.M. (on Saturday).
- Celia Wren . Washington Postot h