The Survivors/Los Sobrevivientes at Texas State University
Katie Bender's drama takes us inside the Alamo for the rare treatment of that story as something intimate, with feeling more than action
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Nov. 8, 2019
The general wants to know what the battle was like inside the compound that his army attacked. He asks one woman who was there, leaning in for the answer, eyes fixed on her as if in expectation of a revelation. But following her response, he craves more details. So he finds another woman and asks her the same: What was it like inside during the fight?
For more than 180 years, people have been asking that question about the Battle of the Alamo. It started with the man responsible for the assault, President-General Antonio López de Santa Anna, who interviewed the women and slaves still alive after his army took the mission, but given the enduring hold the Alamo has on Texans – and many outside of Texas – the search for answers continues.
Austin playwright Katie Bender is among the latest to go seeking them, and her new drama The Survivors/Los Sobrevivientes, just produced at Texas State University, takes us into that sacred space of Lone Star history in what is the rare treatment of the Alamo as an intimate story. Bender doesn't completely dispense with the gunfire and battle cries of more traditional accounts, but as the play's title suggests, her focus is on those people whose blood wasn't shed – specifically, the women and slaves whose lives were spared by the Mexican victors. At center stage are three women: Susannah Dickinson, the Alamo's best-known survivor; Juana Navarro Alsbury, a member of a prominent family in San Antonio de Béxar, cousin by marriage to Jim Bowie, and the person reportedly asked by William Travis to negotiate a surrender to Santa Anna; and Eva Baptiste, a woman of African descent who may represent one of the slaves at the mission whose names weren't recorded or may be an invention of Bender's.
Each is of a different culture and has a different connection to Texas and to Mexico, so each sees her future – especially as it relates to Texian independence – in a different light. Bender makes these disparities apparent and sets them off against one another, along with the women's contrasting personalities – proud and patrician Juana, warm but guarded Eva, bumptious and feisty Susannah – in the pressure cooker of a small compound under siege by a large army. In the Texas State Department of Theatre and Dance production, the student actors inhabited these figures so firmly that a natural tension developed among them (and a natural camaraderie, too). And they were able to establish a like rapport with the men on the scene. Jessica Healey's rough-and-tumble Susannah could take on the whole frontier, so she had no problem butting heads with her husband Almaron (a strong but perpetually frustrated Tanner Berg). Taylor Childress' Juana appeared born to authority, and her ramrod-straight back wouldn't bend even for Joey Herrera's oily, menacing Santa Anna. (Herrera also played Davy Crockett, another side of the same cocky coin.) The confidence of Jonaee' Davis' Eva provided a potent contrast to the reserve of JaVaun Butler's affectingly modest Joe. (And it would be unfair not to mention Payton Russell, whose young, green Cricket, a bouncing ball in a coonskin cap, enlivened all his scenes.)
The performances no doubt benefited from the expertise of director Jerry Ruiz, whose deft staging and pacing moved us smoothly through the siege. No single work will ever answer fully the question of what it was like inside the Alamo, but this production gave us a feel for the human fears and concerns and costs in that place, a place quite different than the one in the myth we've erected.
The Survivors/Los SobrevivientesTheatre Center Mainstage, Texas State University