Dallas — It may have been a twist of fate that on opening night for Alex Alpharaoh’s WET: A DACAmented Journey, the Texas sky deluged, making those who ventured to Theatre Three’s basement space literally wet. In spite of the challenging weather, the show opened to a full house which included a number of community organizers, politicians, and funding supporters.
Cara Mía Theatre Co. and Ignite/Arts Dallas are sponsoring the first national tour of Alpharaoh’s award-winning solo show, after David Lozano and company saw it during the 2017 Los Angeles Theatre Center’s production of the Encuentro de las Américas Festival (Encounter of the Americas Festival), a four week-long event whereby plays by Latin American and Latinx companies were featured. Cara Mía’s Deferred Action was also invited to the event. The Latinx Theater Commons organized a four-day convening Nov. 8-12, 2017 around the event, which I attended and saw this show for the first time. Then, as now, the audience reacted with an immediate standing ovation.
Written and performed by the Los Angeles-based artist and beautifully directed by Brisa Areli Muñoz, Alpharaoh was awarded the 2018 Best Solo Performance by the L.A. Drama Critics Circle, and it is evident why. The show winds through its 90 minutes quickly and smoothly. The structure of the personal narrative—a true to life autobiographical account—flows through so many characters that one feels the fullness of the experience through a polyphony of voices. These voices are embodied through a series of physical gestures that never exceed the mean, neither too much nor too little. His physical gestures have a subtle, poetic quality to them, one which parallels the poetic voice of the artist. The directorial skill is evident here.
There are three main voices: the Poet, Anner (AA-ner), and Alex. Alpharaoh seamlessly transforms into numerous characters throughout the piece, which opens with the strong, in-your-face poetic voice of a rapper (the Poet), an undocumented youth who calls out the truth of living in the shadows, in plain sight. Anner, the performer’s autobiographical first name, is the one used by the character who begins his story with the voice of little Anner, a child not quite sure what it means not to have papeles (legal papers), but he does feel the pain of being the butt of other children’s playground jokes. Here Alpharaoh performs the three voices of the kids making fun of little Anner, who runs home to Mami and asks here where they can get papeles. Assuming the voice of Mami, she hushes him, making it evident that Papi does not like the subject to be brought up. With a singular gesture of the right hand partially covering his/Mami’s face, the message is clear: Papi uses his hands on Mami. Never minding his mother’s advice, little Anner goes and speaks with Papi about the business of getting the papers. Alpharaoh’s Papi performs the sense of bravado that people tend to demonstrate in circumstances stacked against them and use alcohol as a relieve valve. A proud man, Papi tells him to do his best always, to strive to be the best, with or without papers. The complexity of his parents’ relationship is honored.
Anner/Alex share what it’s like to live life in the shadows. A smart man, he finds ways to first become a DACA recipient, then applies for an advanced parole permit in order to go visit his dying grandfather in Guatemala, and procure legal status there, a place he has never known. In the performance he goes through the hilarious encounters with Guatemalan embassy clerks, all of whom pose obstacles and he reenacts with humor. Throughout the piece, he reiterates his Americanness…he can only claim what he is, an American in all senses except legally.
While there are too many to single out, several poignant moments come to mind: the plight of the disabled man, fearful that his roommate is being abused by the nurse aide; Anner’s fear as he sits on a flight bound to Guatemala, without papers from either the U.S. or Guatemala, his place of birth. He was three months old when his mother, a 15-year-old, brought him to the U.S. through a coyote. Had he been born a few months later while already in the U.S., he would be a citizen and his life different. His first encounter with his paternal grandfather, a man he is meeting for the first time. One of my favorites is his impersonation of Eileen, his teenage daughter. And of course, his Guatemalan cousin Lucy and his grandfather speak only Spanish. This was inserted naturally in the dialogue; those of us who speak Spanish laughed at the inside jokes. The monolingual audience members got the gist. There was none of that tired trope of saying the speech in Spanish and then immediately having it translated into English by some other character or voice. This was a refreshing directorial and artistic choice.
The set design is simple, with three round metal stools placed in three different corners of the intimate black box space, a long bench, and a coat rack. He moves through the space according to the scene, which gives each corner of the space what feels like intimate time. The costume design is simple, too. He wears a long, crispy clean white T-shirt with pants and tennis shoes. He sometimes adds a baseball cap, and on the trip to Guatemala, a colorful, casual athletic jacket (the photos in this review were taken at the LA performance). There is also a soundtrack of ambient music and a recording of voices. Cara Mía uses Dallas designers Niki Hernandez-Adams (costumes) and Aaron Johansen (lighting), plus New York-based Broken Chord (sound).
WET: A DACAmented Journey is a must-see for many reasons, but foremost is the aesthetic qualities of the narrative structure and the honest acting. While the subject matter of this piece could have easily fallen into a pull-on-the-heartstrings melodrama, it avoids such emotional manipulation. Equally important is the social and political importance of its theme, which asks us to see undocumented persons in their full humanity and not just as some histrionic statistic made up by ultra-right-wing political marketing campaigns. The play begins and ends with the same request: “I need you to see me.”
In the talkback following Friday night’s performance, the last word to the audience was that those of us who are citizens can do what Alpharaoh, as an undocumented American, cannot: vote. Make your voices count. With elections coming in November, the message couldn’t be clearer.
» Teresa Marrero is professor of Latinx & Latin American Theater in the Spanish Department at the University of North Texas. She is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and on the advisory board of the Latinx Theater Commons.
» Read our interview with Alpharaoh
WET: A DACAmented Journey is scheduled for the following tour stops:
- Sept. 21-30: Theatre Too! (inside Theatre Three, Dallas, TX)
- Oct. 4-7: Teatro Vivo (Austin, TX)
- Oct. 11-13: Destinos Latino Theatre Festival (Chicago, IL)
- Oct. 18-20: University of St. Joseph (West Hartford, CT)
- Oct. 30-Nov. 4: University of North Texas (Denton, TX)
- Nov. 8-25: ArtsEmerson (Boston, MA)