Most of this feature/review ran in American Theatre Magazine online May 3, 2016.
Audience response to David Lozano’s and Lee Trull’s Deferred Action, playing through May 14 at Dallas’ Wyly Theatre, a co-production between Cara Mia Theatre Co and Dallas Theater Center:
“It was infuriating. I want simple answers and my beliefs reinforced, the way forward to be clear. None of that is here. It makes you think and question what you believe. It’s a great show.”
“DEFERRED ACTION was terrific! Thoughtful, engaging, humanizing what is too often a polarized political sound bite. Colloquial art in the best sense— rocking, change the world theatre.”
“They put a real face to the people crossing over. What do we need to do to make it go forward?”
“Brilliantly written. Highlights where the real problem is. It’s not us. It’s the politicians who refuse to take action. We come to theatre to be entertained, challenged and provoked. That took place tonight.”
DALLAS: Deferred Action, a world premiere co-production between Dallas Theater Center and Cara Mia Theatre Co., wastes no time on polite rhetorical discussion of the major civil rights issue of our era, immigration policy, but engages at once vividly in its life-and-death struggle. As human beings hold their collective breath in crime-haunted shadows, and Congress plays expediency games to avoid creating any long-range legislation that could save lives, this new drama (running April 20–May 14) portrays the journey of a fictional child-of-immigrants “DREAMer,” Javier Mejia, from a babe in arms to a recent college valedictorian and emerging celebrity Latino activist in North Texas. Mejia becomes the face of a new America, as enshrined by opposing political factions scheming to add him to vote-grabbing arsenals.
Regional actor Ivan Jasso inhabits Javier, a bright, clean-cut idealist, with grit and character, as proud of his Latino heritage as he is committed to obtaining full U.S. citizenship. It’s easy for audiences to empathize with Javier, whether he’s schooling a rogue cop with his wild-card sidekick Robby (Arturo Soria), proposing marriage to sweetheart and fellow activist Lisa (Elizabeth Ramos), or caring for his fragile grandmother Abue (Frida Espinosa Muller, ,giving yet another soul-stirring stage performance). Dramatic tension explodes with clarity, unadorned elegance, and a surprising thread of humor.
Eventually Javier’s idealism fades as the play reaches a second-act crescendo, replaced with a sober, principled determination to see a major paradigm shift that will benefit many, no matter his personal sacrifice. Javier’s personal challenges interlock smoothly with a depiction of turbulent presidential election not unlike the real one we’re living through, which dropkicks the play forward at breath-catching pace. Deferred Action’s most memorable character may be the commedia-esque persona of fulminating, anti-intellectual Tea Party presidential candidate Dale Jenkins. Michael Brusasco plays Jenkins with unabashed abandon, perfectly calibrated smarminess, and enough mangled Spanish pronunciations to send the audience into groans of mirth.
Jenkins upsets everybody’s apple cart when he announces policy shift. After a macabre dream-sequence encounter with baby Javier and his Salvadoran mother on their horrific immigrant journey north, Jenkins announces his embrace of full amnesty for immigrants and his plans to introduce legislation to make it a reality. Republicans repudiate and Democrats deride Jenkins for his apparent conversion to envisioning “a new America.” Christie Vela plays no-nonsense Democratic Senator and presidential hopeful Nancy Rodriguez with an unflappable, steely-eyed chill reminiscent of California’s longtime Senator Dianne Feinstein, providing a tough, grounded counterbalance to Jenkins’s effusive emoting and fundamentalist jargon. Rodriguez asserts that Jenkins’s policy switch is nothing but an opportunistic vote-grabbing “skydive,” all while she is held to a higher performance standard “tightrope” as a Latina woman representative who can promise nothing until she becomes president. Meanwhile, Javier, along with the thousands of real-life DREAMers he stands for, will continue to wait for promised legislative reform, in limbo until the political power brokers are good and ready.
The question remains at curtain: Will Javier sell out to Tea Party Jenkins for short-term gain that could simply be reversed by a Republican Congress, or allow the Democratic status quo of suffering to continue in hopes that the pro-immigration Rodriguez takes the White House? As rousing, heart-wrenching drama punctuated with humor, pathos, and mysterious, soul-inspired revelations, Deferred Action makes a strong case for art’s capacity to move past reflecting life to inspiring its evolution—maybe even revolution?
The play was seeded when Dallas Theater Center Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty proposed partnering with Cara Mia after attending their intense, company-devised political play Crystal City 1969 in 2009. He engaged Cara Mia’s artistic director and Crystal City 1969 director David Lozano in talks about a full collaboration of both companies on an original project that Lozano would create and direct—one that would delve into hot-button political issues and allow the skills, talents, and missions of both companies to flourish. The two men chose to explore the DREAMer immigration experience. Lozano requested a cowriter, and he was joined by Lee Trull, Dallas Theater Center’s director of new-play development. It proved to be a complementary match.
“Kevin locked us into actor housing for three weeks, eight hours a day with two computers,” said Trull of the writing process. “We would write all day to create the story template that eventually became the play you see.” Trull found the collaboration “a unique, character-defining experience. Blending our styles of writing was a challenge at first until we were able to just hear the characters in our heads, not our separate voices.”
Added Lozano, “We had to decide at first how to dramatize the political problem at the heart of the play. It took both of us, writing, discarding, journaling, and rewriting, to arrive at its final structure and form.” They hit upon the idea of creating an alternative-reality 2016 in which a Texas Tea Party presidential candidate challenges Democrats in Congress over their foot-dragging on immigration reform. The two writers invited real-life DREAMers and activists to give feedback during the play’s reading stage. “They have been with us all through the development process,” said Lozano. Indeed, the character of Javier is based on three actual activists’ experiences, including Marco Malagon and Ramiro Luna, cofounders of the North Texas Dream Team. Both have said that the play portrays the frustrations and essence of their movement with accuracy, lending palpable authenticity to its creative arc.
Collaboration with other arts organizations is a key value at Dallas Theater Center, under Kevin Moriarty’s proactive leadership, along with commitment to producing new work like Deferred Action. The company’s most recent collaboration was a production of All The Way with comparably funded and recognized Alley Theatre in Houston. The collaboration with Cara Mia Theatre Co. expands the scope and reach of possibilities, as intended by Moriarty. “With this project, we are attempting to rethink how a large, heavily resourced theater can partner with a smaller, culturally specific company. We were committed to ensuring that the cast included an equal number of actors from both acting companies and in roles of equal size and weight. It was important to us that the piece be directed by Cara Mia’s artistic director.” Though his company’s budget is “more than 20 times that of Cara Mia’s,” he says, “We have gained as much from working with Cara Mia as they have from collaborating with us. They inspire us. Leveraging the Cara Mia artists’ deep relationship to the Latino community has brought new audiences into the theatre, and their history of political engagement allowed us to enter into a deeply meaningful dialogue with the DREAMers, who have served as the true inspiration for this work.”
Deferred Action immerses its audience in a real-life issue that is often passed over in the media’s clamor for the sensational and celebrity-driven. More importantly, it redefines that issue in terms of the people whose lives are on the line, and nowhere nearly as much as in Texas. Texas ranks second in the nation to California in numbers of undocumented citizens. Of the c. 223,000 young people in Texas who qualify for DACA, 114,540 have applied for the status. Research indicates that DACA substantially benefits those who hold the status and as a result the states where they live (69% of DACA youth interviewed said they got a better paying job because of the status; 92% of those who attend school say it enabled them to pursue educational opportunities they could not before protected status). Texas also spearheads the lawsuit, along with 25 other states, to block the Obama administration’s November 2014 DACA expansion and DAPA initiatives (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans). In February 2015, a federal district court in Texas issued an order to put these initiatives on hold. Juan Gastelum of the National Immigration Law Center in LA (www.nilc.org) confirms that the Supreme Court will most likely hand down a decision on the matter in June 2016. Texas is the eye of the immigration storm.
Deferred Action closes May 14. If you haven’t seen it, get there. It’s art as life undeterred, dealing with one of the most important social/political issues of today in the USA. Support REGIONAL art that speaks on a universal level. Tickets: 214-880-0202 or www.DallasTheaterCenter.org
” Rocking, change the world theatre!“
This is a very perceptive, informative review. However i wonder if the play was different when i saw it and when the writer saw it. Ms. Bonifield reports that the questions Ravi faced were left unanswered at the end of the play. When i saw it was very clear that Ravi had chosen to sell-out for his own quick gain, thus going against the long-term good of his people. As a perceptive audience member I felt betrayal. I had spend the entire play investing empathy and caring for Ravi, believing that he was an everyday hero. However the authors “tricked” me. I felt manipulated.
Forwarding your comment on to the local playwrights in case they wish to respond.As a critic, I try not to give away endings, provide “spoilers”, etc.. If you stayed for the talkback, there was usually lively discussion about Javi and his decision to follow a particular path.The work offers no pat answers to a complex and real subject, inspires dialogue after and portrays the very real need for immigration reform. Art that can entertain while it changes life perspectives? Give me more of that. Lots and lots of it. Thanks for chiming in.
This is Marco A. Malagon.
This is a Play and has many twists just as many twists the Dreamers have gone thru and continue to face. The ending was ment to be controversial, however, it is not the ending the trilogy. The feeling of Javi to be a sell out could be interpreted as such. However, as a part of the story, I can tell you that as of now, no body has been able to buy us out. Politicians are always trying us to get on their game, however, the only side we are taking is to ensure our families are kept together. The after talks will enlightening a bit more. We appreciate your feedback.
Marco A. Malagon