Immigrants and Refugees Seeking a Home

There are lots of screens onstage these days. The intrusion of video into drama can be a nod to the visual culture of surveillance, or to the uncanny fantasy that our private and public lives are somehow being secretly filmed for a later wide release. Often, though, the gesture is underdeveloped, a wan attempt at multimedia art, perhaps the result of insecurity about the ever-increasing dominance of TV. Plus, actors can have their cake and eat it, too: they can play big and also get their closeup moments.

“American (tele)visions,” by Victor I. Cazares, at New York Theatre Workshop, is the rare recent show whose use of—and constant references to—video feels absolutely necessary to its story. It’s about a Mexican immigrant family who live in a cramped double-wide trailer, and whose mind-numbing consolation is a small TV that casts its glow on a modest set of brownish furniture. The mentally absent, rawly mourning father, Octavio (Raúl Castillo), sits in front of it as if in devotion at a shrine. The family lives near a Walmart that is more of a mythic space than a discount store. They spend more time in its aisles than they do at home. Early on, in a scene at the store, the daughter, Erica (Bianca (b) Norwood), shouts through the P.A. system:

I’ve been waiting for you.

Welcome to the first Wal-Mart in the entire United States Universe. I’m the voice of perpetual consumption.

Projected against the stage’s back wall is a tall bank of wide-screen TVs. Their presence is vaguely sinister; sometimes one family member wields a video camera—no doubt borrowed from the store’s tech section—and points it at another, for a forensic view. Faces show up in wobbly hand-cam candor on the wall, revealing depths of painful emotion, accompanied by rafts of backstory. The play zooms back and forth in time—perhaps to mimic jump cuts—with the Walmart as a stage for the family’s memories and, especially, their sorrows. Erica’s brother Alejandro is dead, the victim of a workplace accident.

Besides his family, Alejandro has left behind his not so secret boyfriend, Jesse. One actor, the sweetly compelling Clew, plays both boys: Alejandro in memory and Jesse in the fluidly moving present. That twinning adds to the play’s air of sad mystery. It also introduces a tough theme—the possibility of replacement. One consumer good, farmed from the Walmart shelves, follows the next in heedless succession, and the family, on its worst days, is tempted, in various ways, to try to replace Alejandro, too.

Everybody’s off in their own screen-based fantasy. Video games with old-school graphics—the play is set in the nineties—and amateurish home videos play on the walls. Bretta Gerecke’s scenic design is an intricate marvel of modular efficiency. (Gerecke also designed the costumes, with Mondo Guerra.) The strangely simple set consists of two stacks of two big rusted cubes. They look like Richard Serra sculptures lost in limbo, but they open up to reveal fragments of the family’s reality—the vivisected interior of their living room, or the aisle in the toy section where Erica stares at cars and action figures and her friend Jeremy (the very funny Ryan J. Haddad) plays make-believe with Barbies.

The contrast between the mute, modern-art aloofness of Gerecke’s cubes and the liveliness of the scenes that play inside them fits with a doubleness that characterizes the whole play. The show is strongest at its most conceptual and strange. Near the end, Erica’s mother, Maria Ximena (Elia Monte-Brown), slips into the role of Wal-Martina, a manic, bar-code-bedecked consumerist oracle who spouts about capitalism and the horrors of migration. Antic forays like this elevate the material. Things get more hackneyed when the script settles on melodrama.

The actors, directed by Rubén Polendo, each seem to be in a slightly different play, which is fine when the characters are addressing the audience, but—with the heartening exception of Erica and Jeremy—less so when they’re shoved into fitful interaction with one another. Even that flaw, though, might be understood as an outflow of grief: it makes us natives of our own interior visions and strangers in the outside world. And maybe that’s the power, too, of the show’s gleeful, jagged, imperfect forays into video. Here, the split between screen and stage, usually such a leech on a show’s dynamism, enacts the fractures between family and commerce, trauma and the future, a new country and a country left behind, everlasting love and the stubbornness of grief.

Since last summer, a twelve-foot-tall puppet named Little Amal, built by the Handspring Puppet Company, based in South Africa, has been roaming the globe. Despite her epic size, Amal—a ten-year-old Syrian refugee—is a tender, instantly moving figure. She rolls and bats her eyes, reaches out to children and lets them touch her hands, dances guilelessly when there’s music playing nearby, waves to the crowds that come to see her and bids them to follow her on her journey. The simple mission of her travels—a long-running work of theatre, and also a brilliant, mobile extension of the idea of statuary public art—is to remind the world, increasingly pinched in its miserliness toward strangers, of the struggles of exiled people in need of simple hospitality. She’s been greeted by the Pope, hugged a blue-and-yellow flag in Ukraine, walked among crowds in The Hague.

She recently visited New York. The appearance was nicely timed; our city is now host to increasing numbers of migrants, bused from Texas, where a heartless state government has decided to exploit them as pawns instead of welcoming them as fellow human beings. The stunt by Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis—who deceived a group of Venezuelan migrants into boarding planes to liberal-coded Martha’s Vineyard—was still tugging acidly at my mind when I went to see Amal in Harlem.

Before Amal arrived, there was a group of African drummers and dancers, exciting the crowd to welcome her. We were in the plaza outside the State Office Building, on 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. I could tell she was coming before I saw her—suddenly the whole crowd shifted toward the northern end of the barren plaza, hailing her with shouts and signs and, yes, also screens. Everybody had their phones ready, taking pictures and videos, sharing the experience on Instagram Live.

The puppet is operated by three people—one inside her body and one at either arm. Another person leads with a walkie-talkie, like an air-traffic controller. This artifice is naked, but Amal somehow has a real presence. Somebody near me said she had a soul. I couldn’t help but agree. Amal—we all kept calling her by name, utterly caught up in her personhood, identifying by proxy with those she is meant to symbolize—danced for a while with the drummers, then started walking. When she turned the corner onto Lenox Avenue, Harlem’s great promenade, the whole neighborhood looked up at her.

She peered into a halal truck, genially passed a fruit vender, graciously listened to a gospel choir that had come to sing “This Little Light of Mine” for her. All this time she was trailed by a crowd, like the leader of a parade. The ever-changing bazaar of Harlem’s street life—churches, newish bistros, a gleaming Whole Foods, empty storefronts—was her set, a suddenly poignant comment on the built environment of great cities. Do they welcome? Do they exclude? She took it all in like a polite guest, and I, in turn, saw the neighborhood, a second home to me, utterly afresh.

Amal was met by a New Orleans-style second line at 120th Street. (Her time in Harlem, coördinated by the National Black Theatre, offered, among other things, a quick survey of Black diasporic artistic and cultural forms.) We danced our way east, met by a block party near Marcus Garvey Park.

“Welcome, Amal!” a woman standing on her stoop shouted into a microphone. “We thank you for all you represent!” ♦

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