It’s a hot-button topic. What are borders anyway? Who draws these boundaries in the sand? Migrant workers crossing over from Mexico to the United States, often family men, continue to die in the desert. Policies are lacking and have failed on both sides of “the border,” that has become a symbol, (as noted in the program notes) for the deep confusion over immigration laws.
The GALA’s ARTEAMERICA series is not-to-be-missed. It’s where theatrical risks are at their most cutting-edge. Amarillo is a multi-media, multi-perspective piece, from Mexico’s Teatro Linea de Sombra, recognized with Best Experimental Theatre Awards in 2000 and 2005. As directed by the company’s artistic director, Jorge A. Vargas, Amarillo tells it as it is.
An imposing, white climbing wall fills the back wall of the stage and glares out at us. Kudos to Multi-media designer Kay Perez and lighting designer Jesus Hernandez, who both designed it. Original music (Jorge Verdin-Clorofila) keeps us unsettled and off-guard. Voice-overs by unknown speakers begin the spiel from the Migrants (texts by Gabriel Contreras):
“Sounds pretty to say ‘The American Dream’ for someone who hasn’t been there.” White noise, garbled sounds of trains and an overlap of unidentified voices come in, (sound design by Rodrigo Espinosa) along with flashing random images of trains and tracks. Faces of men and women are plastered onto “Wanted” posters. Coming from the south through Mexico, the immigrants ride the rails for the borders, but are robbed and victimized by the coyotes (or guides), who are thieves. In Mexico, laws are enforced by the General Justice Department (PGR), “The most corrupt police in the world, …,” according to a narrator. Not only are the laws against the migrants but also they face the barrier of the harsh landscape they have to cross.
Performed by Raul Mendoz, supported by actors Alicia Laguna, Maria Luna Torres, Vianey Salinas Garcia, Antigona Gonzalez and throat singer, Jose Jesus Cuevas (more about him later), a migrant worker is traveling to Amarillo, Texas. The Man (Mendoza), an allegorical figure, is seeking the El Dorado. He wants a job so his family can live a better life.
The Man runs in circles, slams into the wall, reaches his arm up, falls back, jumps and circles, and tries again repeatedly until he dangles, like a squashed reptile, from a peg in the wall.
“What are you looking at if I’m nobody,” he says as he recites a series of names and list of chronological ages. On each side of the stage apron, two females behind the surveillance cameras on tripods, are filming. Different perspectives, some are aerial film clips, some side-angle-shots of the Migrant Man, (by Video Operator Marina Espana) are projected on the wall, used as a screen. We get the sense that he lives in a suspended limbo, always reaching. But he never arrives. His explanation is telling: “I went to Amarillo. I dehydrated. I got lost in the desert.” He vanishes and dies in the desert. Or does he? We, in the audience, are left in a state of ambiguity.
Later Vargas, the director, doesn’t let go of that circle theme that’s repeated. The Man, in a state of delirium, draws spirals, like Aztec hieroglyphics in sand spilling out from suspended plastic bags overhead. He lies in the sand and is filmed by the cameras as if dead. He uses a gesture later that the women migrants mimic. He points to his arms and naval as if to say that he is a human being, not just a corpse in the desert or a pictograph left on rock.
But let’s back up and take a look at what’s going on at home. One of the most vivid scenes, filled with black humor, captures the pain of loss of the human beings left behind. In English, the Quinceañera, or Sweet Fifteen party, is the ritual celebration of the rite of passage from childhood to young womanhood. A pig is ritualistically killed. And three of the female performers dress up in brightly colored, ruffled, bouffant skirts. Momentarily, there is exuberant joy. Yet the three young women dance alone. There are no men. At the end of the dance sequence, the emotional drain on the families of the “disappeared” men in the village is symbolized by the three girls left clinging to pegs on the wall. “I told her I would come back…..” the Migrant Man says. Yet the young women dressed in their gorgeous coming-of-age dresses are left hanging. It’s a darkly sad-funny, grotesque image that aims for the gut. (It drew applause on opening night.)
Yet there is an unexpected, upbeat revelation about the women with absent husbands. They are the abandoned women who want their men to come home and forget the dream that has become a nightmare. Yet these fiercely independent women have organized Artcamp Cooperatives; and they have become artisans to support their children. The women struggle for self-sufficiency, often successfully, to make it on their own. They handcraft silver jewelry and pass on ancient Aztec designs. “Our mission is to preserve our traditions;….”
Traditionally, protest and political satire are deeply embedded in Latin American theater literature. The use of the poem “Death” (“Muerte”), by Harold Pinter, the Nobel Laureate playwright, fits with the themes. A fountain of questions gush forth from actor Alicia Laguna at the microphone, supported by scrolling text projected on the upstage white wall. (The poem is also printed in the available “Contextual Supplement.”) “Who was the father or daughter or brother/Or uncle or sister or mother or son/Of the dead and abandoned body?” is one of the lines that seem most significant.
This show has closed
Performed in the context of the staged Amarillo, Pinter’s poem became a loose reference to The Day of the Dead/Los Dias de Los Muertos, an Aztec high holiday, as well as the November 1 and 2 Christian holidays on the Catholic calendar as well. It seemed more than apt to this reviewer that the coincidence was fortunate for this avant-garde theatre piece to be performed on the celebration of the return of the ghosts of loved ones. On one level, this production memorialized the migrant workers who have died crossing the border.
On another level, the ending leaves issues unresolved with a disturbing image. The plastic bags of sand, suspended from above, are pierced and sand pours out all over the stage. What this last stage gesture means is anybody’s guess. The sand spill continued through the actors’ curtain call.
There is a sense that the entire production of Amarillo is an ongoing exploration. One of the most successful visuals that endures: is the “winged Heart,” that is pierced and bleeding red sand, and could be symbolic of the enduring human spirit. Overall, the piece is very challenging, even baffling, but totally satisfying and upbeat. There were moments when I wanted to weep; there were times of joy when I wanted to get up and dance. Yet controversial, disquieting questions remain about how dangerous immigration can be, about human rights and the loss of identity.
Amarillo, From the Mexican Border to GALA. Texts by Gabriel Contreras. Directed by Jorge A. Vargas and members of Teatro Linea de Sombra. Produced by: Teatro Linea de Sombra & Southern Exposure Performing Arts of Latin America, part of a national tour, made possible through a program of Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation/the National Endowment for the Arts and the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation at the GALA Hispanic Theatre at Tivoli Square. Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy