This Golden State
Part One: Delano
Both churches and theatres involve people (often strangers) sitting close together in an auditorium, sharing emotional experiences, and then exiting somehow more closely knit than when entering. Luis Alfaro has heightened those similarities in dramatic form in his This Golden State, Part One: Delano, now in its world premiere at Magic Theatre. Andre Boyce’s authentic church setting effectively engulfs audience and actors alike with beamed wooden ceilings, pews for audience, and a small-town church interior with back-lit cross. In the pews next to many of us theatre-goers are parishioners with veiled heads and Bibles tightly clutched in hand, mumbling prayers in between greeting us as if we were old friends. There is a vulnerability created in feeling that we may not get to be totally passive observers, a queasiness that is heightened as our play/service opens with the fiery sermon of a jumping, arm-waving, yet friendly enough pastor who clearly addresses all of us and seems to expect a few ‘amens’ and ‘praise Gods’ to come from us as well as the actors scattered among us. Before the evening is over, we will in fact nervously and then more confidently and even joyfully join in hymn singing, help in some stage tasks, and shake the hands of our fellow congregants as we all leave the service/play.
Elias (our charismatic preacher) has returned from his San Diego congregation to the apostolic church of his childhood in Delano, California, a drought-plagued, rural town populated largely by Mexican-American farm workers who struggle under back-breaking work and low incomes. Sean San Jose brings to Elias an ease of relating and a familiarity as if we all have known him for some time, but he also exudes an air of mystery and uneasiness that troubles even his wife of two years, Esther, who finds out more about him in two days from congregants than from their two years of marriage. Mr. San Jose rarely relaxes Elias’s nervous and jerky character except when he retreats trance-like into memories of an event several years prior that evidently led to a sudden midnight departure from Delano (dreams that are aided by the petite and convincing Carla Gallardo as a 16-year-old Romie).
As Esther, Sarah Nina Hayon is powerful in her portrayal of a preacher’s wife who initially tries to fit into an expected spousal, support role. Her meek, soft-spoken style with dropped eyes and ongoing twitching of her long, black hair slowly gives way to a more erect, purposeful, and happy persona as she proves herself to be more than just a support role for Elias or for our story. Watching Ms. Hayon’s transformation of Esther from background to total foreground during the course of the play is a joy.
After some unexplained absence, Elias is in Delano to support the woman who helped raise him, Hermana Cantu, the wife of the Tabernacle of Faith’s founding, now-deceased minister and the woman Elias considers his real mother. Hermana (Wilma Bonet) is a bent-over but bustling woman of deep faith who is clearly the real anchor of this poor congregation of believers. While she proclaims, “I am blessed to work in the fields,” she also admits that the work is difficult and anything to make her life a bit easier is appreciated (“Thank you, God, for Bisquick.”) Ms. Bonet brings to Hermana a strong, deep-rooted, and earth-mother quality that reflects the power of the land on this agriculture community. Her faith is heart-felt but also full of day-to-day practicalities and personal biases and quirks that make her all the more delightful and even lovable – by those on the stage and in the audience/congregation.
Transitions and their resulting transformations are plentiful in Mr. Alfaro’s story of California and its Hispanic peoples, a California that we sense has deep roots in traditions yet is branching into new, unchartered territories. People we meet are dealing with death of loved ones, old age, marriage issues, unclear personal futures, and self-doubts. How each faces the uncertainties forced upon them by drought, divorce, and death and where each finds the strength to go the next step toward a new resolve is the heart of our story. Salvation comes not so much from God but through each other. Prayer becomes conversation less with God and more a means to share advice and warning with fellow life travelers. Hands are laid on shoulders and dough alike to provide support and sustenance. Faith, caring, the strong resolve of the women of the community, and a sense of what it means to be rooted together to the land itself are the keystones of the living history we witness.
Loretta Greco directs moving, engaging sequences that help us become engaged and committed to this congregation around us. Scenes change with no interruption, and there is a sense of everyday that feels natural and inclusive. There are times, however, in this final preview performance when mid-scene conversations become overly mundane and slow with not much being added to the story’s progression. And as our story enters the final five minutes, we experience a couple of false endings that frankly are confusing and head-scratching before the final, very clear and satisfying center-stage climax. A post-bow return to congregational singing is not effective, feels forced, and diminishes greatly the final resolve of the play.
Rating: 4 E’s
Presented as a co-commission with Oregon Shakespeare Company, the world-premiere of This Golden State, Part One: Delano continues through June 14, 2015 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, San Francisco.