I took a drive on Saturday evening up to Pacifica to watch my friend Sam V. perform in a play that I had never hear of before meeting him. He was a cast member of “Bless Me, Ultima” and was nice enough to do a brief interview for my podcast. You can hear him on Episode 17. He said the story was an incredibly moving one and boy was it ever.
Silvia Gonazales S. has written a script that is based on actual events and I was astonished at how absolutely relevant it is in today’s political climate. With immigration reform being such a hot button issue, the timing of producing this play couldn’t have been better. When I read the synopsis of the play on her website, I thought “My, my, my, this is gonna be one heavy play.” But as I watched, I don’t feel like what her site described was the same play. The core of the story was the same, but in a more scaled back and intimate way.
Boxcar (El Vagon) is the story of 4 Mexican men and 1 El Salvadorian student that are trying to make it to the U.S. The men are locked in an airtight boxcar at the beginning of the show and slowly we watch as their time inevitably runs out. For the Mexicans, their journey is to find work. For the El Salvadorian, his journey is for asylum. But in truth all 5 people are on this path for hope. As the story unfolds, the Mexican men are really only trying to provide a better life for their families back home. Finding a job in the States in order to send money to their families back home is such a high priority for these people, and I found that admirable. Thinking back on the show, though, I cannot recall what the student is hoping to achieve. He is forced to leave home by his mother after the murder of his father. Is he going to be seeking justice for his father? Is his goal simply to hide? I am still unsure. Did I miss something? (That’s totally possible.) Four of the men don’t survive the trip, and the one that lives is questioned by the authorities.
The play opens with a brutal but brief assault on Noel (Sam Valenzuela), a young El Salvadorian anthropology student. After the blackout that follows, we meet Manuel (Ramon Bustos), a Mexican man trying to make it into the U.S. He has been stopped 9 times by border policeman Roberto (Steve Ortiz), but swears it’s been “much less than that.” Roberto’s partner, Bill (Gary Pugh-Newman) is not one to allow “these kind of people” into the country and takes his job with the utmost seriousness. As the conversation in the scene builds, Manuel essentially says to Roberto, “why are you giving me such a hard time when I just want to be able to make a living just like you. You, who are the same origin as me, a fellow Latino.” This gets Roberto thinking. In the blackout that followed, the stage curtains part and reveal a boxcar interior. On the far side of stage left, a single wooden chair is slightly downstage of a multi drawer white filing cabinet. When the lights focus on stage left, the border police enter with Noel and begin to ask him what happened in the boxcar to lead to the death of the others. While Noel refuses to talk to the authorities, he remembers and the lights switch focus to the boxcar. The rest of the play is told in this way through Noel’s memories as he sits terrified, waiting to be deported.
While this play has a serious message, it’s expertly written with several comedic moments in the first half as we get to know and like the characters. Then, in what is the second half of the play, your heart races as these characters slowly and intensely suffocate. During the last fifteen minutes of the show, nearly every nose in the audience was experiencing the sniffles. I stole a few glances at my fellow audience members and saw many tear filled eyes and hands clutching tissues, ready to dab at that unruly nose or leaky eye.
Silvia Gonzalez S. doesn’t shy away from the issue of immigrant exploitation and the shameless way America disregards the working class folk who have made this country what it is. During one of my favorite moments of the show, Roberto and Bill are arguing about the exploitation of immigrant people and he tells the story of the Chinese Americans that worked on the railroad from one coast while some of the laborers worked on it from the other and met up in the middle. When you look for any pictures of that glorious moment when all that hard work reaches its achievement, who do you see? Not the people who put blood and sweat into it.
Nope, you see a bunch of well to do men in suits setting a sledge-hammer on the final spike, The Golden Spike. I have to admit that I felt ashamed. Then Roberto goes on to say that we take advantage of them because we can pay them less knowing that they can’t complain about it to the authorities. So they get advised to go to get government aid because they are making such little money. Yet we complain that they use it. They live in cramped apartments because that’s the only way to keep a roof over their head. (That one made me feel guilty for laughing at jokes about those situations.) During a monologue, he says “When I see those callused hands, I know that they are only coming here to work.” I just loved that line.
In the end, Roberto and Noel leave the boxcar. Did they leave together in solidarity? Did Roberto just give up this kind of life? Did Noel actually make it? It’s a typical open-ended finale for this type show, so that people can talk about it and make their own choices on what they hope came to pass.
The only things that I would hope to be adjusted by this weekend’s performances would be the transitions from scene to scene when there’s a blackout with music, and the character of Bill crying in a scene toward the end of the show. There are I believe 4 blackouts that happen and they have a music cue added to them. I don’t know why, but it felt like there is a long time that I was sitting there waiting for the next scene to begin. It could have just been me, I will totally admit that. So for the character of Bill to cry…hmm…When his partner Roberto is giving this great argument about America being the land of hope and the model country of the world, Bill is crying in the background. I don’t mean like he’s sobbing like a kid who’s doggie just got run over. It’s a silent cry, but for this hard ass, by the book, I-ain’t-losing-my-job-cuz-I-need-it S.O.B., I found it took me out of the play and made him seem inauthentic. I can understand that the actor may want to show that the character isn’t such a bad guy. This isn’t the way to do that. I would rather have preferred a gentle hand on the shoulder, or a some other small motion of friendship. The crying was just too much.
All that aside, the cast is very good with some outstanding performances by Sam Valenzuela and also Glen Caspillo as Pepe, who was an artist on that stage, and Jason Bustos as Huero. Sam’s dual performance as the frightened young student at the deportation office and the friendly, nervous traveling guy was well thought out and believable. If I had to give a suggestion for him, I’d say don’t shake so much when you meet Manuel in the boxcar. ;-). Mr. Caspillo is a wonder to watch. The moment that he entered, he drew you in. Even when he was dead, I found myself looking over at him. Mr. Bustos had a big brash character that demanded a big personality to truly bring Huero to life which he accomplished easily. There were a few moments where he would turn in a way that I thought would be counter intuitive, but it must not have been that big of a deal, since I don’t remember the details.
It’s hard to describe the emotional ride I went on as I witnessed this smart and inspiring play. Should you see it? HELL YEAH!
But you have to see it this weekend as Sunday, May 8 is their final show! Remember, since this is a Stage 2 Production, the show is free, but give yourself some karma points by dropping a few bucks in their donation bucket.
Check here for the details of the show!