We’re waiting: huddled together, surrounded by a black tarp on all sides. A woman enters and starts barking instructions. It quickly becomes clear that as the audience of The Working Theater’s La Ruta, we will be taking on the role of Mexican immigrants crossing the border illegally into the US. From the crowd, immigrants begin to speak as well, and for a while I wasn’t sure who was an actor and who was an audience member. I thought of how those threatened with deportation are around us every day. Soon we’re all brought inside of a truck’s cargo hold. Then we are no longer a part of the action, but are witnesses to scenes that occur either in the driver’s seat or in a back section of the truck.
Raul Abrego’s set design combined with Dave Tennant & Kate Freer’s projection design and Sam Kusnetz’s sound design effectively create the truck-ride environment. Although the truck stays put, I sometimes felt the sensation of movement from the actor’s rocking back and forth, the sounds of cars passing by, and video of oncoming headlights passing the front windows. Video was also projected onto the pile of boxes to show the Texas landscape and became more abstract at points.
Juancho, played by Bobby Plasencia, when he isn’t muttering in Spanish in his sleep and guarding the non-human cargo, is banging a malfunctioning flashlight around attempting to create some light. The immigrants are: Francisco, an ex-gang member portrayed with dignity and stoicism by Gerardo Rodriguez, Irma, a frightened young woman played by Zoë Sophia Garcia, and Mabel, a woman deported from the US after 17 years of living there, and returning again to be with her family, played with resolve by Annie Henk.
In one moment, they pull beautiful color-shifting clocks from the boxes that bring quite a relief to Lucrecia Briceno’s otherwise dim lighting. Only in that moment of peace does the life to come in the US feel like the positive goal.
Most dynamically, Ed Cardona, Jr.’s play is about what it means to be ‘illegal.’ On this trip there is no semblance of law and order beyond the whim of the coyote. The terror of being sold into prostitution, the possibility of being left alone in the desert, the threat of being sent back to Mexico again after such an arduous journey, never let up. Then as an illegal immigrant in the US, there is no recourse to a just governing entity. This made me consider the significance of law protecting my well-being, and what it means to lack such an authority. The utter powerlessness of the immigrants on this journey was the story’s tragedy. Someone shopping at the supermarket next to me lacks the basic rights I take for granted.
After the performance there is a short exhibit that effectively contextualizes the truck experience. It features testimonials from immigrants, daunting statistics, photographs, articles, and hand-outs with general information about what is happening with immigration policy and how we can be involved.
The title may be in Spanish, but with the exception of select words and phrases, the play is in English. This work directed by Tamilla Woodard is relevant to every New Yorker’s life. Sitting in the dark truck may have been unpleasant in moments, but it’s worth the struggle to gain a little bit of perspective.