Arizona Theatre Company almost defaulted on its 50th anniversary season, and from what we've seen so far, that would have been a gigantic loss. This season their shows have represented a global reach of place and history and sensibility (and with An Act of God
, even a universal reach.)
Their most recent offering, La Esquinita, USA
, by Rubén C. González, fits right into this theme and sense, and offers an unusual sort of piece for ATC. It features in both subject and style what perhaps a large share of us are familiar with, but lack experience of, in an up close and personal way.
And this is personal. That's part of the reason the show is so successful.
Comprised of many characters, all played by González, the show gives us an intimate look at the destruction felt by the mostly black and brown denizens of a once-thriving community, in physical ruins after the tire factory, the area's source of economic stability, relocated out of the country, leaving workers, friends and neighbors, most of whom restricted in their choices, in ruins as well.
We meet a narrator, Lencho, who helps direct us in our visit to the bus stop 40A Red Line and beyond. (La Esquinita
translates to "little corner.") The story is mostly represented by the high school student Daniel, a very messed up homie who tries to cope with his current life by using crystal meth and dreaming of when he can join the military. Although he has seen three brothers killed when they served, this is his greatest source of hope. As the play's moments unfold, he is crashing from his high, has no money to pay his lurking supplier and struggles with making sense of anything. Other characters appear, each quite different from the others, each bringing a slice of their individual story to the larger one. The progression of characters is not merely a linear one, but a weaving together of the various personalities resulting in an intriguing and powerful impression.
González the actor transforms from one to another with seeming ease. Sometimes it may take a moment for us to catch up with who's who, or not comprehend an accent or Spanish phrases, but it's not really a problem. The result is a mesmerizing, kaleidoscopic and penetrating moment.
González was inspired to develop the piece after he worked for a while as a substitute teacher in a Los Angeles. He experienced a sense of helplessness, he reveals in his writer's notes, but knew there was a story he needed to tell. Part of the power of this piece is the compassion revealed, not only González' heartfelt energy with which he creates and shares his characters, but also within himself. For this is certainly himself revealed, not in the sense of "look at me," but in his desire to distill the humanness of these characters with full heart and land them safely, and with hope, in our hearts.
Essentially, this is "guerrilla theater," radically evolved. The original guerrilla ("little war") theater movement grew as a response to socio-political upheaval in the 1960's and the term "guerrilla" is taken from Che Guevara's writings: "The guerilla fighter ... has the intention of destroying an unjust order and therefore an intention ... to replace the old with something new." Initially, it was what we now call a flash mob sort of thing, with performers doing their radical, theatrically imagined protests spontaneously in unorthodox places, like on a sidewalk on a busy street in the middle of the day. Several theaters were well known for these practices, such as the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Bread and Puppet Theater and El Teatro Campesino.
González has been associated with Teatro Campesino, so he's familiar with socially charged theater. Although the Campesino has evolved from old-style guerrilla protest, it continues to have at the heart of its purpose a dedication to be a voice for political and social justice.
But make no mistake. This show is not a sermon, and one never feels preached at or shamed. If any overt kind of lesson is involved, it's much more by provision of background and history.
Although the piece could be done with very little in the way of set and props, Regina Garcia's design, along with Michael Oesch's lighting, supports and heightens the nature of the play. The corner is littered with the tires the now-closed factory produced, as well as overturned trash cans and leftovers of a way of life gone and replaced with literal graffiti as well as human graffiti marking the landscape. A chain-link fence becomes a suggestion of a prison. If anyone has doubts about the ability of design elements to deepen our theater experience, this production should dispel them.
González' piece is poetry and plea and passionate hope. There may be reason to call it imperfect, but there is much more reason to stand in appreciation.
La Esquintita, USA
Presented by Arizona Theatre Company
Various dates and times through Feb. 4
The Temple of Music and Art
330 S. Scott Ave.
$41 - $63
Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission