Courtesy of Cornell Performing and Media Arts

March 28, 2022

Navigating ‘A Chicano’s Guide to Navigation’

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I struggled to begin writing this piece. Honestly, if The Sun didn’t have a hard deadline of submitting reviews within 48 hours of seeing a newly released production, I’m not sure that I would have even attempted to put anything down on paper. Last Thursday, I saw the opening performance of A Chicano’s Guide to Navigation, written and directed by my friend, John Colie ’23. There was nothing inherently wrong with the play; it was a fine piece with a good cast, solid blocking and an important message. Yet, for some reason, it just didn’t click with me. This is in no way meant to be a critical essay, but I did promise John an honest review.

To start on a positive note, one noticeable aspect of the show that I appreciated was the trio composing the cast. Leading the charge for most of the 45 minute runtime was Sofia Sarai Aguirre ’22 in the role of Maria, a young Mexican-American (or Chicana) woman trying to create a presentation about her cultural identity while touching on themes surrounding communication in the digital age. Joining her on stage were Jenniviv Bansah ’23 and Michael Ratzkin Mallol ’21 as Sylvia and Enrique, respectively, friends of hers who are trying to help with this presentation. According to Sofia, a film studies minor, this was her first time in a leading role, something that surprised me when I interviewed her after the show. She seemed completely at ease in front of the well-attended audience on opening night and did not falter once in her delivery.

Indeed, all three of these actors did a fine job of portraying their characters. The problem was with the characters themselves. I know the author of this play well; we’ve spent many Tuesdays after our literary magazine meetings eating dinner together. So when I heard each character speak using the same affectations that I have heard weekly over plates and plates of sweet and sour chicken, I recognized those mannerisms immediately. It is a very difficult thing for an author to disassociate their voice with their writing. This is not to say that one’s work should be completely removed from its creator, but it is my opinion that in creating original characters, it’s essential to give them their own original voices. What I heard on Thursday night was a three-way monologue between John, Mr. Colie and John again. In truth, it made the other cast members feel almost unnecessary, as they were repeating beats that Sofia was practically saying herself. They served less as foils to her character and more as an echochamber. 

Furthermore, the angle of attacking social media and its impact on our daily lives felt like a redundant point. We have all spent the past two years excessively increasing our screen time, and yes, we know that it’s bad. For the majority of the production, there wasn’t anything new said when it came to finding faults in social media sites. The point that Instagram creates a distorted view of reality is no longer such an earth-shattering revelation. With spring break coming so soon, everyone knows that certain people will be flooding our timelines with pictures of drinks in the sand or crazy parties that seem to pop up out of nowhere, yet still have a thousand people attending. Perhaps social media makes you feel left out at times, and that’s okay, but I don’t find it necessary to hammer that point home. 

What was necessary, however, was seeing how this new level of interconnectedness impacts how we perceive violence, especially police violence and other similar attacks. In his director’s statement, John stated that the impetus for him writing this piece was as a means of responding to the death of Adam Toledo, a thirteen-year-old Mexican-American boy who was killed by Chicago police officers in April of last year. Using social media as a conduit for spreading information regarding such violence was an important angle to present through a play such as this one, and it made for much more compelling and thought provoking storytelling than staying limited to the same old “social media is bad” narrative.

As I have spent the majority of this review being negative, allow me to end in a more positive manner. The production team of Vallan Roan ’23 and Samuel Ryb ’21 did a great job with the sound design and video projections. The idea of the aforementioned video projections was also a very interesting one, and while I have seen it in a few plays before, it has never felt as special as it did here. The use of images from the Mexican Revolution, especially the one featuring John’s great-grandfather, was extremely interesting and really drew my attention. Cultural history is always a fascinating subject to explore, and the length of the play allowed the audience to gain just enough information regarding Chicano heritage and history to want to learn more after leaving the theater. Although it is to be expected of a university production, all of the actors delivered their lines impeccably, and if there were any hiccups in there, I certainly did not notice. Additionally, the set design, overseen by stage manager Teresa Janikova ’24, was minimalistic, allowing for the audience to really focus in on what was being said by each character. 

At the end of the day, this review of mine is simply an opinion. I am sure that there are people who sat in the same audience as me and had a vastly different understanding and appreciation for this play. I’m sure that there are angles that I missed, subtle connections that were too nuanced for me. But despite my above criticisms, I am happy that I went to see this play. I walked into the Black Box Theatre at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts with one goal in mind: supporting my friend. When the light came on and John and his co-director Aisling Mannion ’24 stepped out to take their bows, I saw the pride in their faces for what they had accomplished. John told me after the play that seeing this performed live in front of an audience was a literal dream come true for him. Despite whatever I might critique or dislike, watching my friend realize his dream on stage made it worth every single second that I sat in his audience. I can’t wait to see the next one.

Tom Sandford is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].