The day before, the dancer in the hot pink pants was bumping and grinding her way to a pricey ticket on a “yola” to Puerto Rico. Ultimate destination: New York, where she’ll earn big bucks for her mom and little boy. When next we see her in I Love America (American Place Theatre), she’s clinging to the bow, sending terrorized prayers skyward while waves slap the puny boat around as if it were a bathtub toy.
The “boat” is nothing but two prone chairs; the waves, darkness and the recorded splash of water. The terror, however, feels real. It is the high point of writer-performer Lidia Ramirez’s one-woman theater piece on the yoleros—the Dominicans who risk their lives on this treacherous illegal passage. It brings to life her interviews with those involved—the human cargo, their friends and fellow survivors, and U.S. Coast Guard rescue teams.
By turns, the performer inhabits these folk—sad or ironic witnesses, an orphaned little girl in a party dress, a determined trickster who’s made the voyage 13 times, only to be sent back again and again. In Elise Thoron’s energetic staging, these characters burst forth in a cacophony of Latin beats and a flash of bright lights. Ramirez, a likable presence throughout, does not make all the roles equally credible; but, more than the drama, the documentary authenticity of this piece is arresting: the hours of blistering heat, the crowding, the stench of shit and vomit, the dry clothes tied in plastic bags for landing—and sneaking away. And you’re likely to long remember the woman who was discovered to have her period. The panicked mob, afraid the sharks would smell blood, flung her flailing into the sea.