Monday, July 3, 2017

"Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles": Day 2, Play 2 TheatreEddys at OSF Ashland 2017

Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles
Luis Alfaro

Anyone even vaguely familiar with Euripides’ ancient, Greek play, Medea, walks into a play entitled Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles with some apprehension and an assumption that the ending is not going to be happy, that there will be blood shed.  When the Spanish word “mojada” (Spanish for “wetback”) begins the title and “Los Angeles” ends it, already the mind leaps to a story with some tragedy about Mexican immigrants and Trump’s modern America.  Immigration into the United States, successful assimilation, and eventual citizenship is currently known by most people as a risky and arduous journey and in no way one deemed inevitable for completion.  But in Luis Alfaro’s 2013 play, Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles, the harsh experiences of recent immigrants take on close, intimate, and shocking dimensions – even as myth and reality mesh into a powerfully moving story of one family’s migration.

Only a short year before, Medea and Jason along with their son, Acan, and Medea’s mother, Tita, made their way in a suffocating truck across the hot dessert and into the U.S. illegally – but not without a huge price paid beyond just dollars.  In that one year since arriving, Jason has moved from standing in the daily line-up outside Home Depot of men seeking work to become the valued employee of a Mexican-American contractor, Armida, herself a first-generation immigrant.  In the meantime, Medea, a gifted seamstress, creates day and night on her sewing machine beautiful shirts for $8 each that become Bloomingdale, $200 shirts.  

While Jason seems to be thriving with promotions coming left and right, Medea never leaves their meager house (owned by Armida) and must listen to the rampant, accusing gossip her mother and only friend, Josefina, tell her about Jason and his boss, Armida.  In the meantime, her son seems too eager to leave all that was Mexico behind and become American as quickly as possible, evidently following the advice that Jason continually gives to her: “You have to learn to be of this place … Dress like them … Be like them.”  What Medea particularly cannot buy and will not accept, however, is when Jason adds, “Everyone pays in this country … It all comes with a price.”  To Armida, the prices she sees being asked are much too high.

Sabrina Zuniga Varela is stoically stunning in her role as Medea.  When she speaks, her eyes often seem to be looking somewhere far beyond the realities surrounding her, to a land that is still deep within her soul.   Those eyes see and remember secrets of the prices she has already paid to be in this new land that she has yet to explore beyond the fence of her humble house.  Emotions are slow to rise within her; but when they erupt, the volcano’s fury is fiery in ways her petite body belie as possible.  The air of mystery is a shroud she silently wears; the love of family is a cloak she readily and proudly shows to all.  Ms. Varela’s performance is at times like an ancient dance and at other times, reflecting the harsh, cruel headlines of the day.

As her mother, Tita, VIVIS is a storyteller and observer who shares with us background details of the family’s life and history in a fairly neutral but friendly tone.  She also delivers some of her much-loved gossip with a twinkle in her eye and smirk on her face.  She is often in the background watching others but is never just as a wallflower, always conveying with intent, unspoken messages and reactions.  Her wit is sharp when challenged; her advice, pointed when or when not asked; her desire to survive in this unwelcoming land, dogged.  

Nancy Rodriguez is Josefina, a neighbor and baker who spends nights creating her goods and days on the sidewalk with a rolling cart selling her cakes and breads.  Her eagerness to make a new friend and sister out of Medea is contagiously buoyant; her own story of doing all she can to become a real American is gripping and full of deep emotions, as relayed by Ms. Rodriguez.  

As Jason, Lakin Valdez too is absolutely driven to make America his home and to go up the ladder of success as soon as possible, opening whatever door is made available.  His Jason keeps a toe in the old country and the life he once had there through his sensual and tender devotion to Medea, but his energy and focus is clearly in making it in his newfound land as seen in the increasing transformation Mr. Valdez skillfully brings to Jason.  The door Jason has found that can lead to a new, comfortable life for him and his family is Armida, played by Vilma Silva with a haughty air of superior confidence, a highlife style of found success, and a directness that suffers no fools in getting what she wants as hers.  Rounding out the fine cast and bringing his own memorable persona is Jahnangel Jimenez as Acan.  He is a little boy on his own mission to be American, willing like his Dad (the name Jason insists he use rather than Papi) to go with the flow wherever it takes him — especially if it leads to skate boards, hip tennis shoes, and time in a LA, backyard swimming pool.

That Medea’s existence in this country is not yet rooted somewhere she feels safe and comfortable is highlighted by Christopher Acebo’s striking set.  A small house hangs precariously tilted in the sky, reached by a staircase twisting upward, with the story’s telling and action occurring in the fenced-in yard where Medea works, Tita watches, and others come and go through the gate.  The sounds of LA freeways from David Molina’s sound design and the scenes of passing planes and helicopters across an LA backdrop (Kaitlyn Pietras, video designer) are just some of the recurring reminders that this new land can be  harsh, inhuman, and untouchable for a woman and her mother who commune almost religiously with the plants, herbs, and banana tree in the yard.  Lonnie Rafael Alcarez’s lighting creates shadows of foreboding that this journey to being an American has a side dark and ominous, even in this land of SoCal sun and fun.  

Under the direction of Juliette Carrillo, this creative team and the full cast assemble a play and a story that grabs the audience with a grip felt to the core and forces us to contemplate with new empathy the current  immigrant experience in America.  Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles ultimately is a cry for understanding what it sometimes, what it often, what it always costs to leave one’s past in order to declare, ‘I am here; see me and take me for who I am as I become who you are.’

Rating: 5 E

Photo by Jenny Graham

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