April 7, 2013

Mother of Exiles Takes Aim at Big Issues

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Mother of Exiles, now playing at the Schwartz Performing Arts Center, is set in a high school classroom on the Arizona-Mexico border. It showcases six multicultural students at odds with their teacher, Ms. Andrews, a Princeton grad with hopes of instilling hope and opportunity in their isolated border community. Students horse around and bicker as class starts late due to an assembly informing the student body of the recent armament of teachers — several students were unaware. The class rehearses a play written by their teacher on the liberties of United States citizenship, obvious fuel for tension given the ethnic diversity of the characters. Rehearsal is continuously disrupted by the students’ cynical criticism of the script and, more broadly, the society that has deprived immigrants of safety, opportunity and acceptance among non-immigrant populations.

The play climaxes when school administrators take possession of a student-crafted manifesto which reflects the class’s ongoing debate regarding the American government. The school is put on lockdown and the class’s internal search for a culprit ensues. Under the pressure of the threat, Ms. Andrews withdraws her handgun from her purse and it remains visible for the remainder of the play as interrogation shifts from one student to the next. Ultimately the interrogation settles on Ms. A, whom the students feel has betrayed the constant message of hope she had endorsed. The playwright’s critical opinion of weapons further comes out when a student, Adriana, undermines the chaos of the scene by confessing that her sister has been kidnapped and criticizes the undervalued danger individuals in the border states face. Ms. A — having been showcased in asides with her Mexican father and clearly conflicted about handling a gun — abandons her pretentious, racially-ambiguous façade and confesses that she is from the town the play is set in and she is very astute to the challenges faced by the students. Eventually, the police enter the classroom and the cast comes together as bullets aim for the author of the manifesto. While the climax extinguishes some of the teenage angst of the characters, poetic statements on life, freedom and acceptance are scattered unsparingly from the beginning of the play and, as a result, level what could be a much more effective plot.

The set of the play is simple, a couple of posters typical of a high school classroom and a large Jasper Johns style collage of the statue of liberty showcasing the play’s key motif. The actors move through every corner of the intimate Black Box Theatre, making the drama of the gun palpable in the audience. The most memorable moment, however, is the entrance to the theater, where ushers disguised as border patrol officers frisk audience members for identification and documentation to accompany their tickets. Once they pass inspection, audience members are directed to aisles cluttered with roadblocks.

Unlike most shows at the Schwartz Center, Mother of Exiles was typecast. Deanalis Resto, playing Ms. A, relates her upbringing as a Latina raised in Pennsylvania to her character in the play, “[Ms. A] decided to reject her culture and assume a role of ambiguity. I always felt more culturally right but reaching, in the opposite of Magda pushing it away.” Their experiences growing up in Latino families in the U.S. helped several of the actors relate to their roles in a similar way.

The role of Adriana, whose sister is kidnapped in Mexico, hits close to home for actress Liliana Esparza who was born and raised in Mexico before moving to the Texas-Mexico border. While Adriana’s situation and the fear expressed by many of the characters may seem far-fetched to audience members, Esparza expresses familiarity with these kinds of  circumstances and the prevalence of ethnic diversity in border communities. Esparza states, “I hope [the audience] will go home and look up where people are in danger,” expressing her desire for people to learn and connect more with the challenges faced by immigrant populations.

Inspired by the 2009 French film Skirt Day, a film exploring the migration of the Turkish community across the German border, playwright Elaine Romero explores issues including immigration and the armament of teachers, two pressing controversies in the U.S. The play does not shy away from taking a stance on either issue and the actors’ passions and fears only encourage empathy for those dealing with these issues. In light of the tragedy at Sandy Hook, Romero’s play could not have be performed at a more appropriate time. The controversy of arming teachers is a key element of the play and placing a gun on stage certainly makes a statement. Resto explains, “A weapon on stage is always its own character, you have to give it life. The audience will only believe that it will hurt someone if you make them believe it,” and the shaky hands and desperation of actors does not fail to portray the urgency of the situation.

“This play has a lot of themes, but there’s one thing driving it forward the whole time that keeps you hooked,” actor Zach Wright said. Indeed, as the plot unfurls, criticism shifts to the holder of the gun. Wright continues, “When I’m holding it, I don’t want to be holding it. I want to get rid of it, but I don’t want someone else to be holding it. I want it to disappear.” The play has given performers a chance to reflect on their opinions about highly controversial issues and, sitting in the intimate Black Box Theatre, audience members undoubtedly will too.

Original Author: Madeline Salinas