Luis Alfaro’s riveting update of the Greek Tragedy Medea spun out against our current immigrant crisis is authentic, primal and timely with exceptional direction and evocation by Chay Yew. I saw it this weekend, one day prior to the Trump announced ICE raids designed to terrorize and apprehend illegal immigrants, “wetbacks” (mojados) with the intention of incarcerating them until eventual deportation. The “raids” failed miserably in their execution, but not their intent to terrorize.
Alfaro adroitly reinterprets the migrant crisis and parallels it with the story of Medea, the sorceress who dispatches her children after her husband Jason dumps her and marries the king’s daughter. However, he makes significant changes in the characterizations, softening and humanizing Medea and Jason and removing the notions of vengeance and anger by changing it to despair, isolation, loneliness and desperation for the character of Medea. Additionally, unlike the classic Medea, Alfaro never leaves off Jason’s love and tender concern for Medea, shifting her enemy conflict away from Jason to her rival Pilar.
Alfaro’s Medea is the the indigenous Mexican “mojada” portrayed by the always present and heartfelt Sabina Zúñiga Varela. Varela gives an exceptional, thrilling portrayal of the emotionally driven and abused spiritualist who has been raped on their journey to the United States and still psychologically suffers from the trauma. Her servant/family member tells us early on in the play that despite the herbs she gives her, she cannot heal. Later, as Medea revisits her horrific journey to “freedom” in America in a flashback sequence, we discover why she cannot “heal;” the trauma has frozen her soul and filled her with fear and death.
Medea’s partner Jason (the excellent, charming Alex Hernandez) is one she adores. Despite the sacrifice of her wholeness and happiness, she stays with him and they finish their journey North with their son Acan (the lively, adorable Benjamin Luis McCracken) and their servant Tita (the humorous, wonderful Socorro Santiago) so Jason may fulfill his ambitions. In a later reveal, we discover why Medea had to leave. When Jason suggests they start over in America, she has little choice but to join him and remain under his protection. However, Medea is confused and unable to self analyze and straighten out her severe emotional problems after their arrival.
Early on in the production we discover that Jason wants “the American Dream.” Clinging to Jason and her family as her only hope, Medea believes in Jason’s love and good will. She indulges his promises of a better life for her and their son in the alien American culture. As the play begins, all appears calm for they have settled in Jackson Heights, New York and both have jobs and earn money while Tita cares for Acan. Jason works construction and Medea works at home, all of which is a divergence from the classic play Medea which begins after Jason and Medea end their marriage.
Alfaro seeks to represent his Mexican Medea with a strong faith in herbal medicine that Tita concocts as well as a ritual morning obeisance to the four winds which she practices with Acan as an incantation, a recitation to recall their past life and infuse it with them in the present so they never forget what they have given up. As an indigenous Mexican, Medea is close to the spiritual plane. Her incantation’s powerful symbolism to her mind strengthens the connection with their homeland to which Medea daily seeks a return, despite Jason’s successful forward direction in becoming prosperous and in encouraging a better life so they may become American citizens. Though Alfaro’s Medea lacks the status of a princess, his portrayal of her beauty, innocence and purity (she is in white throughout the play) represents an everywoman. His depiction symbolizes the core ethos of what makes women noble and sanctified. Varela embodies these traits and heightens the honor of Alfaro’s vision for this character which makes her desperate, hopeless fall from grace all the more tragic and poignant.
Medea, a professional level seamstress, works diligently at supplementing their family income by creating a veritable sweatshop in their home where she makes gorgeous clothing at a pittance while her “bosses” reap a substantial profit for each item and exploit her labor because of her non-status as an illegal immigrant without a green card or work visa. The theme of workers being exploited for their cheap labor while greedy individuals who prey upon their circumstances reminds us of the timeless status quo of the workers vs. their corporate overseers and highlights the plight of undocumented workers. It also is reminiscent of the greed of corporate America which refuses to pay the proper value for their workforce that makes them profitable while paying their CEOs who largely schmooze and network lazily 300 times the amount.
In Medea’s life as an undocumented worker is the everpresent fear that she, her son and Tita may be turned in and deported. This haunts Medea and contributes to her agoraphobia so that she prefers to stay at home in Queens away from the chaos of New York City life that is unfamiliar to her. Her status oppresses her for she has no way to bargain with her employers who “call the shots” and pay her the minimum locking her into an indentured servitude. She has no recourse if she doesn’t like her wage to ask for more. They will go to another undocumented worker or have her deported. Her circumstances make her their slave.
All the general details of Medea, Jason and Acan, Tita relates to the audience chorus-like in a humorous narrative in which she pines for the old country and identifies the difference between the old ways and the inferior American lifestyle. Having been sold to take care of Medea since her mother died as a baby, Tita acknowledges her servile position, but reinforces her authority as a healer who has taught Medea everything she knows. Tita loves Medea who is her obligation. But she fears for her as an innocent and questions Medea’s blind loyalty to Jason whom she believes is not worthy of Medea’s trust. Tita is not only a healer, she is telepathic and she sees what Medea refuses to recognize because if she does, all that Medea has experienced to get to America is in vain, above all the pain and torment she endured on the trip and the misery she feels as an outsider who fits in nowhere in except in Jason’s arms and Acan’s reliance on her.
The arc of development jolts forward after we meet Jason and note how Medea and Jason greet each other, with the calls of the guaco, a bird that lives in the southwest. Their cries to each other are haunting and beautiful. We recognize the bond between them that is ethereal and powerful. Alex remains affectionate and loving to her as Alfaro diverges from Euripides’ classic tragedy in that their family which has been in the U.S. for about a year appears to be united and prospering. Jason is fearless in his desire to be someone and take Medea, Acan and Tita with him on this uplifted path to citizenship. He appears honorable and we assume theirs is the happy whole, until we discover the cracks in the foundation that earthquake and drive the family apart by the end of the play.
The cracks of the foundation are revealed in flashbacks. At one point Medea asks Jason to make love to her under the stars out in the open but she stops herself, and the tender Jason understands and is patient with her. In the extended flashback which Medea narrates, we discover how they struggled to make it to the border, but not before Medea is violated by Mexican soldiers. But that is not the worst that could have happened. Another young woman along the journey is not only gang raped, she is killed and dumped in an unmarked grave. The ordeals migrants go through seeking a better life for themselves is clarified dramatically during this vital segment without polemic or dogma. The ensemble’s acting during these scenes brings the audience to the edge of horror and beyond.
It is Medea’s relationship with Jason that receives the most dynamic upturn in the development of the conflict which Alfaro gradually unravels as we glean the events from Medea’s perspective. Alfaro cleverly occludes the truth as Jason has obfuscated the reality of his personal circumstances to Medea. On the surface we only see that Jason chides her for not going out, and seeks her love and support for his working late nights for the family’s benefit. Even though gossipy comedic Luisa, a neighborhood vendor from Puerto Rico (vibrantly acted by Vanessa Aspillaga) intimates that she is glad her own husband is ugly because Jason’s good looks would be catnip to women, Medea laughs but doesn’t get the message. And the playwright gives no hint of deception until deep in the play so that when its revelation comes, we are shocked and devastated for her.
In a splendid and relevant turn for the culture he writes about, Alfaro shifts the conflict away from the aspect of revenge and justification for vengeance that the classic Euripides’ Medea emphasizes. In Mojado, Alfaro focuses on the bond between Jason and Medea, always as a loving one so that Jason’s betrayal lands like a bomb, and even then, Jason’s charm and sweet, urgent pleas almost convince Medea that he means well in his actions.
Medea’s true enemy is “the other woman” who is Jason’s wealthy boss Pilar (the forceful, slyly arrogant Ada Maris) who has turned her life into the success that Jason intends for himself. Pilar represents all that is noxious about immigrants who embrace the “American Dream,” assimilate and lose their souls to the pursuit of power and money. They become even more treacherous and corrupt than the dolorous white citizens who have been in the country for generations, some of whom have failed and refuse to pick themselves up but instead, blame the migrants for stealing jobs that their own lack of effort would never “lower” them to take, for they are too “superior” to do such labor. This notion abides sub rosa as we watch Pilar and Jason discuss business and note the tremendous industry that Pilar, Jason and Medea embody in their diligence and effort to make money and prosper. Undocumented migrants are synonymous with an incredible almost Puritan work ethic in this play. It is a truism that partisan politics to tickle the ears of the dolorous white supremacists turn on its head.
Pilar comes to diner and reminds Medea that she is staying in one of Pilar’s many houses. Pilar implies she is to be appreciated for not charging Medea fees for making the home into a sweat shop. She infers that it is only her reliance on Jason whom she intends to promote who deflects Pilar from taking a percentage of the money Medea makes. Again, the theme of the exploitation and predation of immigrant bosses who have “made it” taking advantage of undocumented migrant brothers’ and sisters’ industry and resourcefulness is brought to the fore.
When Pilar greets Acan with affection that reveals they have been together a number of times, Medea still remains blind. It is only when Jason reveals that he has married Pilar does Medea begin to understand the forces ranging against her. Medea and Jason never married. Medea believes their union is a spiritual force that would keep them together forever. A marriage paper for their life in Mexico was not necessary; they are bonded by their love and the fruit of their union, Acan. However, in America, legality is paramount so that their spiritual union is nullified by the absence of a piece of paper. The crass American values of money, power, materialism over spirituality, loyalty and love overcome Medea’s hope of survival. Her only way out of the misery and desperation Pilar and the corrupted Jason have bestowed on her as her fate is to take the only power she has left and use it.
In the incredible scene between Pilar and Medea, all of the undercurrents of a woman used to demanding her own way crashes into the innocent Medea’s consciousness. Pilar’s rivalry with this woman who is still loved by her man is acute. It is either Medea or her and unless Medea “gets lost” she will have her deported. The choice for her is no choice. An even more dire fate awaits Medea in Mexico in her home town.
Alfaro has written an amazing play referencing the classical tragedy. He has adopted his work to the Mexican/Latino culture and in so doing expertly gives us an appreciation for what immigrants endure for a better life. Additionally, we empathize because his work covers timeless themes about the powerless vulnerability of migrants like Medea/la mojada. He spins out the familiar tale but enhances it with great depth of feeling so that his protagonist (spoiler alert) restores her own honor and delivers herself to freedom by her acts which proceed more from desperation and sorrow than vengeance. She empowers herself through suicide, something that the sorceress Medea would never contemplate. But in la mojada’s choice there is dignity and sanctity, but at great cost. And at the last moments which are breathtaking she calls out with the cry of the guaco from the realm of spirit. And the response is her tragedy and fall from grace.
From the performances to the authentic, realistic sets and Chay Yew’s fine directorial choices, Mojada is Alfaro’s monumental vision for our times through the lens of Euripides powerful tragedy Medea. In effecting his version Alfaro reveals the great nobility and honor in those who seek to evolve to a different life in another culture, often not completely understanding that the life they seek is filled with corruption, devastation and dishonor. However, to not try is worse. To remain and never know or never learn is naive and a submission to fear and death. The greatness of Alfaro’s character Medea is in her attempt to hold on to the little health/innocence she has and endure. When evil threatens to overwhelm her and her family completely, she defends herself in the only way she knows how. And we are uplifted and sorrowed for her choice.
Kudos goes to the creative team for their fine evocation of the family’s lifestyle through minimalism: Arnulfo Maldonado (Scenic Designer) Haydee Zelideth (Costume Designer) David Weiner (Lighting Designer) Mikhail Fiksel (Sound Designer) Stephan Mazurek (Projetion Designer) Earon Chew Nealey (Hair Style Consultant & Wig Designer) Unkledaves Fight0House (Fight & Intimacy Director).