LETTERS TO EDITOR
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A CurtainUp Review
I Love America
by Les Gutman
I started my review of that show with the following sentence: "The names, the faces and the language change, but the story remains almost entirely the same." I could write something similar about the experience of immigrating -- or trying to immigrate -- to America. That's the subject of I Love America (performed in that same space) which has as its particular focus the experiences of those seeking to leave an impoverished life in the Dominican Republic for the fabled streets of gold in America, especially New York. (Over ten percent of the world's Dominican population lives in the United States, mostly in New York. Less than half came legally.)
It's a perilous path: illegal and dangerous, and usually less saturnian in result than anticipated. Most yoleros, as those attempting the journey are called, begin by travelling to Puerto Rico -- an eighty mile sea journey. Most are smuggled in on boats that are not seaworthy. Too many die enroute (over 200 so far this year); quite a number are "rescued" by the U.S. Coast Guard and returned home; still many others are caught, detained and repatriated from Puerto Rico.
Lidia Ramirez tells their story -- or I should say stories -- based on interviews conducted with yoleros, their friends and relatives, and U.S. Coast Guard and Border Patrol personnel. Using the same sort of "morphing impersonation" style employed in Sakina (popularized by Anna Deveare Smith and employed well in lots of other works since, like Another American: Asking and Telling and The Laramie Project), the show manages an arc of its own, tracing the journey from the beaches of the Dominican Republic across the Caribbean to Puerto Rico and ending in a New York subway car.
Ramirez portrays a variety of these characters -- a toothless old woman who lives near the beach who offers the "home" view; a man (with something of a knife fetish) who has attempted "the crossing" multiple times -- all unsuccessful -- and who details his harrowing experiences (as do others); another man who succeeded in making it to New York but returned a year later filled with cynicism; a young Latin woman who works as a Coast Guard rescue helicopter pilot who is disenchanted, indeed tormented, by our government's half-hearted efforts to save lives; and finally a young hip-hopper on the subway, seemingly fully-integrated into his adopted lifestyle, who loves America. The work is differentiated by the recurrent appearance of a young, outgoing mother/party girl (some would call her a slut) who eventually leaves her young son behind and makes it to America. It is as this last character -- her name is Carrini -- that Ramirez gives her most fully-realized performance.
The work achieves an admirable sense of completeness, fleshing out a wide range of perspectives, shying away from neither pluses nor minuses. It also flows quite well, aided in large measure by astute direction. But weighted as it is, both in enthusiasm and substance, to Carrini -- with an inventively-staged depiction of her sea voyage as its centerpiece -- the remainder comes off somewhat understated by comparison. It's not that Ramirez is unconvincing as the other characters -- far from it -- but her greatest energy is in evidence in that portrayal. A bit more balance would have been an enhancement.
Ms. Thoron's direction fully and effectively utilizes Beowolf Borritt's evocative and accessible set. Lighting (by Jane Cox) is also employed to particularly good effect, and Mimi O'Donnell's costumes, into many of which Ramirez changes as we watch, are on target.
American Place, under its Artistic Director, Wynn Handman, distinguishes itself with this type of play. It is interesting and informative for all audiences, and most profound for those for whom personal experience makes it resonate even more. LINKS
Sakina's Restaurant at American Place
CurtainUp Philadelphia Review: Charlotte: Life? Or Theater, a musical with book and lyrics by Elise Thoron