Care about illegal immigrants in Phoenix? Go down the long way in blood and bigotry. Go the rough, violent way down. Or choose tolerance and love and rise up in grace. Some get sacrificed because they can’t adapt. Others endure the hell that life offers, bare their souls and survive because they can change.
Headlining Kitchen Dog Theater’s 12th Annual New Works Festival is the winner of their national new play competition, Long Way Go Down, by nationally respected playwright Zayd Dohrn. Kitchen Dog’s production of Dohrn’s lyrical, intense drama will grab you by the short hairs from the second the lights come up in their black box space and keep you breathlessly satisfied, on seat’s edge. It’s the raw, expressive sort of performance that makes Kitchen Dog Theater a Southwest region artistic leader.
Zayd Dohrn, a Lila Acheson Wallace Fellow at Juilliard, is an affable, warm-spirited, educated writer, who earnestly wants to entertain an audience but hopes that his work will edify and inspire them as well. Dohrn says he starts out writing plays about human relationships but social issues creep in, too. Hard to escape that focus on human rights and social activism given he grew up on a progressive commune in Arcata, CA and lived under an assumed name in New York City as the son of Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, who helped found the militant Weather Underground. Dohrn infuses some of his plays with comedy and satire (as in his SICK, a 2008 hit at KDT). He believes that Long Way Go Down deals with such a complex, harsh subject it needed a different, darker approach, no happy neatly resolved ending. What results is a magical ethnic folktale of transformation, a suspenseful human epic filled with pathos and hatred, unexpected kindness and overwhelming violence, and ultimately, transformation.
The four characters that inhabit the Long Way Go Down milieu are average people, just trying to get by. Nini and Violetta (KDT newcomers Ivan Jasso and Ani Celise Vera) are a young Mexican couple trying to escape the extreme poverty of their homeland. They have employed the services of coyotes, father and son Billy and Chris (Undermain Theatre’s Bruce DuBose and Drew Wall) to bring them, illegally, to the United States. They arrive in Phoenix unable to pay the required fees. Billy has Chris hold Violetta captive, while he makes another “delivery” until Nini can come up with the money. Nini can’t get any cash, from anyone. Their lives surge into hyper-drive desperation.
DuBose and Wall make a convincing father and son duo, each with a skewed version of reality that ultimately sends them down different paths. DuBose brings a matter-of-fact calmness to the murderous business of exploitation, a steady, amoral glint in his ever-watchful, bigoted eye. Dealing out death to penniless illegals comes so easy to his Billy. Wall’s Chris seems ingenuous, almost simple, in his adamant desire to just make friends with both Violetta and Nini, in his complete lack of awareness of their frightful circumstance. A peculiarly innocent character in this world-weary reality, Chris is the catalyst for change. Because he’s really not smart enough or motivated enough to stereotype anyone, he can transcend racial and cultural stereotypes. When he falls in love with Violetta, it’s genuine.
He sees her as a person, beyond her skin color or heritage. Drew Wall gives a most impressive performance, delivering a multi-faceted character, equally infuriating and endearing. The play’s main events and its literary pace and rhythms revolve around Chris, yet Wall keeps Chris just floating along with unsuspecting vulnerability and naiveté. Ani Celise Vera balances Violetta’s surprised response to Wall’s powerful portrayal as Chris with an underlying “old soul” pragmatism. Does she really fall in love with him? Maybe not, but she recognizes the good in Chris and knows that’s worth latching on to if she’s to have any sort of future at all. Ivan Jasso creates a Nini who is just as cruel and bigoted in his own way as DuBose’s Billy. Clearly stronger in action than word, Jasso’s Nini can be as violent as a caged predator and oozes that energy in every scene. His choices are consistently harsh and unforgiving; he, like Billy, will go that long, hard way down. Whether you want progressive immigration reform legislation or for all the Mexicans to go home, Long Way Go Down will make you ponder the madness of intolerance and the value of love and acceptance.
Brilliant fight choreography by Bill Lengfelder and Cameron Cobb adds hyperrealism to the clearly defined pictures and artistic statement director Christopher Carlos makes with his ensemble. What a simpatico production team; set, lighting, costume, props and music and sound designers work smoothly together to create a vibrant black box reality that reflects the gritty grimness of the dire, specific circumstance while always underscoring the play’s epic, magical elements and its potential for transformation. Set design – Bryan Wofford; lighting design – Linda Blase; costume design – Tina Parker; props design – Jen Gilson-Gilliam; music and sound design – John M. Flores
Zayd Dohrn’s Long Way Go Down runs through June 26 at Kitchen Dog Theater located at The MAC, 3120 McKinney Ave. Dallas, TX 75204
For tickets & to learn more about the readings of the eleven other plays in the New Works Festival 2010: go to www.kitchendogtheater.org, or call 214-953-1055
The 1st Two Decades: Bonifield’s Netcast interview with Kitchen Dog Theater’s co-artistic directors Christopher Carlos and Tina Parker on This Week in the Arts: http://thisweekinthearts.flowercast.net/2010/11/30/kitchen-dog-theater-christopher-carlos-and-tina-parker/
Photos by Matt Mrozek