Many Tucson Hispanics of a certain age will recognize as their own the situation in Where Was Pancho Villa. It's an anecdote about an elementary school class, not too many decades ago, in which a well-meaning teacher tries to turn her lively little Mexican-American students into nice little Anglo kids. First, she Anglicizes their names, because she can't pronounce the Spanish originals. (The resourceful children merely continue using the nicknames they already have for each other, like "Penguin" and "Peanut Butter.") Then she goes after their pronunciation, their lunches, every evidence of their Mexicanness.
Naturally, the kids find much of this humiliating. Some is necessary, like an all-out assault on head lice, but it's the manner in which everything is carried out that grinds them down, from the incessant pronunciation drills to the way the school nurse handles them like lepers.
Will the kids find a way to fight back? Well, whatever happens, you can tell from the way the adults who play them are costumed that they won't all live happily ever after.
Wood, a veteran local actress and playwright, initially took Pancho Villa around as a one-woman performance piece, but here, it's presented by a team of five actors. It works very well as a group project; the ensemble neatly captures the energy of an elementary school class, and individually, the performers convey each kid's mischievousness, fear, frustration and determination to muddle through. They also take turns in the role of the teacher and other characters.
Director Ed Ortiz, who also plays one of the kids, keeps the pace lively but not frantic, and draws many shades of emotion from his cast (Ortiz acts alongside Jason Cabrera, Veronica Zuniga, Judith Caballero and David Lopez). All in all, this is an entertaining half-hour that avoids polemics while making its point about cultural identity and assimilation.
The shorter bits that open and close the evening are far less successful. Dead Bolivians on a Raft is a little comedy by Guillermo Reyes about a Los Angeles kid who tries to write a serious, magical-realist play about refugees coming to America. The kid's immigrant parents try to take over the project; they want to turn it into a happily-ever-after immigrant success story. There isn't much to this piece; it's more of a comedy skit than a one-act play, and doesn't lend itself to nuanced acting.
The opposite problem afflicts Kitty Chen's Rowing to America, set on a raft carrying not dead Bolivians, but a young girl of indeterminate nationality. Her sister has sent her off solo across the sea to a better life in America, where "the streets are paved with gold lamé," and where she won't be subjected to the perversions that afflict young women in her own society.
There are two main problems with this script, and both stem from Chen's effort to universalize the refugee story, reducing her characters to symbols. The writing is self-consciously poetic, an uneasy juxtaposition of prose metaphor and snatches of song that don't quite cohere into the stream-of-consciousness style for which Chen seems to strive. And who, exactly, are these people? The older sister has been the victim of a cultural custom that involves wholesale tooth extraction. Women have had real-enough horrors done to them--foot binding in China, clitorectomy elsewhere--that Chen's invention of a practice that's culturally nonspecific seems, well, toothless. Instead of bringing us all into the lives of refugees around the world, Chen distances us from real people risking their lives to escape trouble. Chen merely gives us a couple of women whose problems could be solved with a good set of dentures.
The one-acts by Chen and Reyes would be hard enough for professional actors to put across convincingly, and they're beyond the ability of a community company like the Catalina Players to redeem. Wood's Where Was Pancho Villa, in contrast, is rich material that this ensemble serves well.