In Jeffrey Solomon’s De Novo, now playing at the New York Theatre Workshop’s Fourth Street Theatre, audience members confront the urgency of the migration crisis through the true story of one Edgar Chocoy, born in 1987 in Municipalidad de Villa Nueva. At fourteen, in the hope of escaping his former gang life in MS13, Edgar decided to leave his home in Guatemala and travel north, to the United States, to join a mother he barely knew. The play begins in 2004, when Edgar is sixteen and fighting in immigration court to stay in the U.S., fearful he will be killed by gang members if he is sent back home. Over the course of the 65-minute show, Solomon comes to depict Edgar (played by Manny Ureña) as someone worthy of not only our sympathy but also our protection. Edgar gives his mother a rough time and falls in with the wrong crowd in Los Angeles, but we learn enough about him to understand that trauma drives his behavior. Solomon’s decision to focus on someone who isn’t a “perfect victim” of the system — a young man who was involved in gang activity on both sides of the border — was a risky one that adds great depth to the political value of the piece.
De Novo is a documentary play: Writer-director Solomon crafted the script entirely from immigration court transcripts, letters, and interviews conducted at a U.S. facility for detained undocumented youth. The set (by Lawrence Moten) is constructed of boxes and boxes of filing folders, which are stacked mostly to the ceiling and sometimes set askew. As we follow Edgar from Guatemala to the U.S. and through his struggle to secure asylum, we meet a host of others, including his attorney (Emily Joy Weiner), a youth worker (Camilo Almonacid), and the judge overseeing his case (Zuleyma Guevara). The plot unfolds through a series of very short scenes — quick realizations of snippets from transcripts or documents — which are distinguished from one another by sudden shifts in lighting (by Christina Watanabe). Sometimes, black-and-white images from the award-winning photojournalist Donna DeCesare are projected onto a screen to the right of the stage. In one photo, a group of Central American youth, the boys tattooed, hang out in a small, squalid room; in another, two men have just been arrested, their hands pinned to their heads as federal agents lead them away.
There are moments in De Novo where Solomon’s drawing on primary source text proves dramatically potent — particularly when Edgar is in court. Legalese is alienating to many outside its bubble; furthermore, most of us in the audience can only begin to imagine the feeling of what it might be like to be an unaccompanied minor, and non–native English speaker, in court. When the immigration judge decides against Edgar’s asylum application, the cold, constrained language of her ruling stands in sharp contrast to the humanizing tone of the rest of the script. We bristle as the obvious harm Edgar will endure if deported brushes against the calculated logic the judge employs to justify her decision. In bringing the court transcript to the stage, Solomon enables us to see the judge’s words in a new light, so that her ruling seems not only inhumane but, frankly, absurd.
These are the scenes in which Solomon achieves one of the great strengths of documentary theater: its capacity to shake what we know or believe to be true. “While many artists working in this domain hope to call into question shared understanding of terms such as ‘real’ and ‘fact,’ ” writes the dramaturg and director Jules Odendahl-James in an essay for American Theatre, “such interrogations exist to varying degrees based on the extent to which documentary theatremakers connect their performance’s politics to its aesthetics.” If we examine some of the most successful contemporary works of documentary theater, it becomes clear that the artist’s aesthetic sensibilities matter just as much as the source material he or she was able to secure. In Fires in the Mirror, Anna Deavere Smith’s salient play about the August 1991 uprisings in Crown Heights, Smith performs a series of monologues derived directly from interviews she conducted with community members and leaders. As scholar Dorinne Kondo has written, in scrupulously studying and then adopting the mannerisms and affectations of her subjects — from married Hasidic women to local African American males — Smith actually destabilizes the “truth” of race; we see it as something she can manipulate, something that is learned.
Though De Novo is undoubtedly moving, I wonder how the play might have changed if Solomon had been willing to take more creative risks on the order of Smith’s work — if, perhaps, the audience could have been pushed, through the artist’s aesthetic (as opposed to archival) choices, to think more critically about what they “know” about boys like Edgar, or the nature of gang violence, or the border itself. Solomon’s “truth-telling” doesn’t broach this kind of participatory quality, a pivotal factor of the form. Somehow, De Novo made me feel more comfortable in my political worldview than complicit in Edgar’s suffering, and that worries me. It held me in its grip, but didn’t make the leap of forcing me to question either my assumptions about what I know or how I experience the world.