The Off Center, through March 31
Mexican-American Silvestre Reyes was born in Texas, fought in the Vietnam War, and went on to fight illegal immigrants as chief patrol agent for the El Paso Border Patrol. Currently, he's a state representative and the "nation's leading illegal immigration expert" in the Texas House of Representatives. The only relation between him and Teatro Vivo Artistic Director Rupert Reyes is the parallel of the politician's life and the extensive plot of Teatro Vivo's La Víctima. The play follows a Mexican family devastated by the U.S.' finicky immigration policy beginning with the Great Depression. The son is separated from his family, fights in the Korean War, and later confronts his mother as a chief inspector for the border patrol. The dehumanization of immigrants and how ignoring this causes us to be dehumanized is the zigzagging theme of this docudrama that tracks the chronological maltreatment of Mexicans who've crossed the border.
Written just more than 30 years ago, La Víctima became a beacon for El Movimiento (the Chicano Movement) and was obviously ahead of its time. Docudrama as political expression is becoming increasingly popular again (just take a look at the national notoriety of the Rude Mechanicals' Get Your War On), yet in spite of this, Rupert Reyes didn't sound particularly confident about the drawing power of La Víctima in an interview with the Chronicle last week; he felt that a stage docudrama wouldn't be successful unless the quality of the show was excellent. What he didn't realize then was that, even with his company's TV-worthy Petra series and the other comedies it has produced, this tragedy has to be Teatro Vivo's strongest production to date.
TV screens upstage flash with colors and designs that look as though someone left the American colors and Mexican colors on a dashboard. Historical terminology and dates pop up along with reasons presented in dual languages why we should remember them. In 1913, Amparo's parents flee the civil war to our "advanced" country that could offer them airplanes and chewing gum. When Amparo is forced to migrate back to Mexico with her children as part of the Repatriation Movement of the 1930s, she is separated from her son Samuel at the train station. As a cool-talking vato in the 1950s, Samuel enlists in the U.S. Army.
Between the scenes, several guitarists perform corridos, Mexican storytelling folk ballads, and they belt out the traditional melodies from their hearts as if they've suffered the exploitation, the racism, and the deportation firsthand. These interludes continually reinforce the sense of a people.
The actors walk in as though they are here to do one thing and one thing only: teach us (although the play is not without its humor, especially if you know Spanish). They're all dressed in a uniform black, which they occasionally dress up with a hat, a tape-on mustache, or scarf over the head for a role. Celeste Guzman Mendoza, who plays Amparo, knows how to fold her arms like a sagacious mother with skin toughened by years of being kicked around like a Mexican soccer ball. Amparo finally faces her son Samuel, played by Michael Mendoza (Celeste's real-life husband), when she is taken from a huelga, a strike, into a combatant interrogation. Sammy's reaction is atomic, reacting like an abandoned and wounded child or in response to a self-loathing of his own raza, or both. But you know how this story ends. It's been ending the same way for well more than 30 years.
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