Dallas — Cassandra Medley’s one act play, CELL, introduces us to the private lives of three Latina women who work at one of the many privately owned immigration detention centers throughout the United States. While the play was originally written with African-American and Haitian women in mind, this incarnation from Calavera Theatre Company adequately profiles lower-income Latinas from Houston now working in Shreveport, La.
The setting is Lupe’s (Mariana Mariel, formerly with Cambalache Theatre Company, now dormant) trailer, which functions as a metaphor not only for her poverty but also as a cell-like living enclosure in which she and her newly arrived sister, María Cristina (Natalia Figueroa) and her young niece Abigail (Kiara Nañez-Zurita, in her acting debut). Lupe is a supervisor at Thurston Corporation, a privately owned undocumented detention center. She is able to have her sister and niece hired at the facility, but, while María Cristina quickly learns not to ask questions, her more naïve 23-year-old daughter increasingly challenges what she sees as an inhumane system.
The conflict unfolds entirely within the closed doors of the trailer, in which family conflicts between the sisters and the inner conflicts within each emerge with regards to the present work they are doing. These conflicts are not of an esoteric nature; they are real and have survival and moral implications. How far does a person go to ignore their conscience for the sake of steady employment, a commodity hard to find in smaller cities and rural areas? Both María Cristina and Abigail have recently arrived from Houston, where they were homeless. They now have a job, one to which they must hang onto at all costs, while they temporarily live in Lupe’s trailer.
Lupe’s drinking suggests her way of handling her circumstance. The most veteran actors of the three, Mariel convincingly portrays her role as the enforcer of the rules, the one that adamantly demands that they just do their job and not ask questions and to not get involved with the detained who are just a number. At some points of heightened tension, it is clearly visible that Mariel has so internalized this character so that her entire body and facial expressions are wrought with stress.
María Cristina is compliant with her older sister, yet her daughter, Abigail begins to express her desire to relate to one of the interned who has a baby.
This is Figueroa’s first acting role in English; again, it is a welcome change to hear people with non-native English fluency populate the stage, particularly in a historically Hispanic area like Texas. Figueroa navigates the role of peacemaker between her sister and daughter, constantly attempting to curve the conflicts that eventually explode.
In her debut acting performance, Nañez-Zurita does a fine job as the idealistic and conscientious Abigail. Her innocence and youth belie an inner landscape that does not comprehend the brutalities of her current employment circumstances.
With able direction by Summer Coronado, founder of Calavera Theatre Company, lights by Ignacio Luján, sound by Enrique Arellano and set construction by Cristián Muñoz, we look forward to seeing more work by this, the newest Latinx theatre company in Dallas. Medley is reportedly adding a second act to CELL, which Calavera plans to produce in the future.
The talkback at the end of the 50-minute piece on April 21 hosted a lively discussion about the lack of legal regulations of these privately owned detention centers, which function as for-profit businesses, harnessing $150 per person, per day from our federal government. This incentivizes keeping detained for extended periods of time. Area activist Andrea Brashier, from the International Rescue Committee (www.rescue.org), was at hand to testify to the current situation and offer opportunities for local involvement.
Keep an eye out for this emerging Latinx theatre company, which promises to deliver relevant and engaging drama.
» Teresa Marrero is Professor of Latin American and Latinx Theater in the Spanish Department at the University of North Texas. She is an advisory board member of the Latinx Theatre Commons