Sunday, February 19, 2023

Indy Shakes presents Luis Alfaro's "Mojada": American disparagement of Latinos in the crucible of tragedy

Jason tries to explain his life plans to to Medea.

The establishment of identity politics in the arts is full of perils, but searing prejudice against Mexican immigrants to California links well to the power of fate in ancient Greek drama. The link is strong but not untroubled in Luis Alfaro's updating of the Medea legend, "Mojada."

Indianapolis Shakespeare Company, in a further indication of its outreach beyond the sacred monster in its name, is presenting the notable Chicano playwright's tragic drama in the Basile "black-box" Theatre at the Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center through March 5. 

Director Maria Souza, in a moving, personal program note, elucidates some of the difficulty Latin American immigrants face. Often forced by economic and political necessity to seek a new life in this country, they continually suffer marginalization and erasure of any identity they can be proud of. 

The subtitle of the play, "A Medea in Los Angeles," directs us to the connection with ancient theater. Alfaro's powerful version of the old story soars anew. It was dramatized most notably by Euripides and has been subject to an abundance of reinterpretations for over 2000 years since. In the long run, spurred especially by the Roman dramatist Seneca's unfavorable vision of the vengeful witch, Medea has come to be stamped as an irredeemably horrific figure.

Alvaro's take is more in the vein of Medea's heroism. Her murderous pushback against her lover Jason's betrayal can be taken as justified. It pursues its own logic of a tragedy of circumstance, her behavior understandably motivated in a context of no choices. We Americans privilege individual choice, and the rightward drift of our current politics sets it on a pedestal (except in the matter of women's reproductive rights). But Greek tragedy emphasizes that collective values and lack of individual control make "considering our options" (as we like to put it) trivial.

Belief in the power of witchcraft also must be brought forward to tell Medea's story. "Mojada" does that credibly, starting with the opening scene of chant and ritual and the occasional dropping into the bilingual text (projected on a rear screen) of indigenous, pre-Spanish words. Values and practices that precede European contact turn out to be the only resource available to the continually victimized heroine as she faces abandonment in the strange environment of contemporary LA. At the end, sealing the action, one of the production's triumphs of costuming and slide projections holds aloft the legendary significance of overwintering monarch butterflies in Mexico.

Erica Cruz Hernandez rises to the necessary level of retribution in the title role, presented at first as a meek, submissive seamstress, grateful for what she takes to be Jason's loyalty and ambition. Resorting to the magical practices of her background, Medea eventually becomes an avenging angel. Her Jason is also seeking the Golden Fleece, like his straying namesake of old. Christopher Centinaro encapsulated an energetic young man's adoption of the American dream quest. His performance Saturday evening had a driven quality that suited well Jason's readiness to be used and manipulated even as he thinks he is forging a freely chosen path forward.

As a link to the troubled family's inherited values, the elderly Tita, who escaped with the couple and their young son in the dangerous journey across the border, represents a bridge to the family's new life, but with a zest for gossip that enables her to take in Los Angeles life with a jaundiced eye. Isabel Quintero effectively placed the audience in the physical and cultural milieu and provided much of the humor in the first part of the one-act show. 

In the first presentation of her double role, Kidany Camilo, as Josefina, sent sparks of blithe enthusiasm flying about the stage as an entrepreneurial, cart-pushing bread seller. In a more brazen, less calculating way than Jason, she also is under the spell of the American dream, while her illusions about freedom loom even larger than his. She also made much of Josefina's contrast with Armida, Jason's upwardly mobile boss, a woman who has fully discarded old-country ways; her portrayal was chillingly hard-bitten and ruthless. As for the fifth member of the cast, Jasmin Martinez fulfilled the basic function of the boy who converts to American ways most comfortably, but the performance was hurt by near-inaudibility at times. 

Chicano identity deserves full exposition on the stage when it is handled with such sympathy and sometimes excruciating detail. The problem lies not so much with the acting and the production, which is richly designed scenically and in costuming, sound, and lighting, but with processing what this Medea treatment might mean.

The title signifies the disparaging term "wetback," so the stigma faced by Mexican immigrants into the lower end of the American economy is clearly signaled. The question arises, then, as to the three-dimensional significance of these lives. They are thoroughly in thrall to materialistic social structures. All societies are dependent on hierarchy and tiers of entitlement and subjection, and these characters seem almost interchangeable with those that could be called up from countless other real-life stories. Their lives are in some sense at a level of abstraction from social conditions, bleeding away their individuality. Karl Marx would have understood this poignant study of what he called "alienation."

It is to Alvaro's credit that he has shed light on one people's particular struggle to overcome  disadvantages imposed upon them. Using an ancient story very much governed by severe stresses involving exile, betrayal, banishment, and magic as a bearer of retributive justice brings a fresh perspective to the perpetual tendency to organize life in hierarchies of power and wealth. "Mojada" powerfully embodies the absorption of other cultural realities into the American way of life at its least attractive. To its benefit, that way of life may be about to change in a massive demographic shift. Yet the tendency toward built-in social inequality is unlikely to go away.

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