This spring, Congress is yet again taking up the debate over immigration reform. And for every day politicians spend arguing over the fate of workers already in the U.S., one or two immigrants—and sometimes more—will die just trying to get here.
That’s the story that Working Theater’s new immersive performance piece, La Ruta—written by Ed Cardona Jr., and directed by Tamilla Woodard—sets out to tell. Upon arriving, we’re led into a holding pen, draped in tarps and soon crammed with audience members, as we crouch by the floor and perch on wooden pallets. We’re prospective migrants, we realize—the show’s extras—as characters begin to emerge, an assortment of “dreamers” making the treacherous journey across the Mexican border, and their “coyote,” a dubious conductor on whom they’re forced to depend.
Soon, we’re unceremoniously ushered into the back of a large white truck, which is set to make the illegal crossing. Seated on cardboard boxes, we peer into the vehicle’s bowels, where Irma (Zoë Sophia Garcia), Mabel (Annie Henk), Francisco (Gerardo Rodriguez), and Juancho (Bobby Plasencia) trade tales of their Mexican pasts and high hopes for the future. To our other side, in the truck’s illuminated cab, Raula (Sheila Tapia) and Albert (Brian D. Coats) munch Twizzlers and scheme about maximizing profits on their cargo—the dreamers, we quickly learn, aren’t the only kind of contraband traveling with us. Come to think of it (as Raula asks), are the dreamers any different from other smuggled substances? Are they people or risky imports to be sold to the highest bidder?
La Ruta is good old-fashioned agitprop, sincere and unsubtle. Its environmental staging is its strongest element, detailed and emotionally compelling. Submerged in darkness, swiveling between imperiled migrants and venal guides, the dreamers’ plight comes through sensually as well as intellectually. Projections remind us how long they’ve been cooped up, and intermittently give glimpses of the Texan landscape outside.
Cardona’s script, on the other hand, is clumsy at times, far more concerned with message than artistic subtleties. He primes us for the moment when we emerge from the truck’s darkness into the sun—and are handed lists of government phone numbers and donation-ready nonprofits. It’s hard to fault a company so clear in its aims, or so committed to bringing its message to many communities of prospective voters: I saw the piece in the Bronx, but the truck will also visit Morningside Heights, Flushing, and Staten Island.
This is theater that’s meant to teach, and both play and production display a “more is more” artistic philosophy: more trauma, more loud debates, more sweeping projections on the truck’s walls. Working Theater didn’t need to work so hard to convince us: A few minutes in the dark truck was enough for me.