Dallas — Deferred Action, a two-hour socially and politically relevant drama co-written by Cara Mía Theatre Company Artistic Director, David Lozano, and the Dallas Theater Center Director of New Play Development, Lee Trull, is relevant, timely, audacious and engaging. Nobody walks out untouched. This play has muscle.
It is a unique piece that marks an important moment in time for Cara Mía, the Dallas Theater Center, and for Texas audiences. Theater scholars and artists are arriving from Austin, San Antonio and Houston just to see this play. For those of us in the world of Latina/o theater, this feels like an important moment. DTC and Cara Mía propose a successful model of collaboration between traditionally underrepresented artists of color and large-scale regional theaters. Surely the national theater scene will take notice of the DTC Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty’s vision and commitment.
A beautiful piece to watch, and a challenging piece with which to intellectually engage, it is the second of a trilogy on immigration began by Cara Mía in 2013 with The Dreamers: A Bloodline at the Latino Cultural Center (see our review here).
At its most human core, it tells the story of Javi (short for Javier and pronounced hov-ee), a young man brought undocumented to the United States from El Salvador by an adoptive grandmother after the baby’s mother was killed by a drug cartel while attempting to escape the civil strife in her country. In part two, Deferred Action, Javi has grown into an exemplary youth, class valedictorian and college student, who, nevertheless, navigates the uncertainty of his life as an undocumented person. The play challenges both Democratic and Republican political policy rhetoric with an unflinching eye and a razor-sharp tongue. The dialogue is witty, intelligent and heartfelt. There were several moments on opening night in which the audience collectively sighed, reacted, and breathed together with the actors.
According to the authors, the basic question for creating this piece was “Why hasn’t Congress passed an immigration reform bill that would protect the DREAMers and their families?” DREAMers refers to children brought to the United States who have lived and been educated here all of their lives yet live under the constant fear of deportation to their country of birth.
In 2012, the executive action called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, was ordered through which persons who were brought into the U.S. under the age of 16 and were not over the age of 31 as of June 2012, and who have continuously lived here, are presently in school, in or discharged from U.S. military service and were not convicted of a felony could apply for a special permission to study and work in the States. (President Obama made an executive order to shield up to 5 million DREAMers in 2014; an act that has been challenged by Texas and other states). This deferred action is only a temporary reprieve that must be renewed every two years; it is not a path towards legal residency or citizenship. With the election of a new president, this executive order could vanish, leaving thousands of undocumented youths at risk of deportation to a land they have never known.
Such is the plight of Javi (Ivan Jasso), his fiancée Lisa (Elizabeth Ramos), and his friends Ximena (Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso) and Robby (Arturo Soria). Lisa opts for political action, supporting Democratic candidate for the presidency Nancy Rodriguez (Christie Vela). While Javi at first supports this line of action, he gets caught up in a series of high profile events that eventually put him in the media spotlight and causes him to waver.
This play was created in Cara Mía’s usual style of gathering information from local informants—as in the anthropological gesture of interviewing subjects in order to give voice to those erased from traditional historical records. During the post-show talk-back on opening night, several members of the North Texas Dream Team from Dallas were present, along with Vela, who led the session. One Dream Team member stated that “David [Lozano] really captures the energy, our energy as DREAMers in this play. It has our struggles and our frustrations. It has our energy.”
And energy this piece exudes. Its dramatic structure is astutely timed so that the segments of the play flow quickly through its 38 scenes intelligibly and with tight ensemble performance. The action of the present intermingles seamlessly with that of the past.
None of the actors outshines the other. Strong performances are rendered by leading actors Ivan Jasso and Elizabeth Ramos. Vela is brilliant as Nancy Rodriguez, the savvy Democratic political candidate (I’d vote for her!).
Counterpoint Michael Brusasco (who replaces Steven Michael Walters, who helped conceive this part, for the run) as the Republican conservative Dale Jenkins ups the ante while engaging in political rhetorical bantering. While it would have been easy to reduce Jenkins to a caricature, this is not the case due both the excellent script and the performance. Jenkins transforms from bigoted loudmouth to a charismatic leader. Brusasco’s Jenkins makes those of us familiar with the nuances of the Bible Belt that a dream can change lives if interpreted as a message from God. Jenkins echoes the racist bantering by presidential candidate Donald Trump; however, the character of Jenkins was prophetically imagined prior to this year’s carnivalesque presidential campaign.
Frida Espinoza-Müller as Abue (Abuela, Javi’s grandmother) is the anchor that holds together her grandson and those around him. Aged and costumed as an elderly woman, Espinoza-Müller, who later appears as a slim and young TV commentator, flexes her ability to transform at a moment’s notice.
Arturo Soria as activist Robby hit home when he comments on the ways in which Latino young men are not allowed to make the same sorts of youthful mistakes as their white counterparts. Stephanie Cleghorn-Jasso as Ximena and in multiple roles brings vigor to the DREAMers campaign. Chamblee Ferguson as Jim and Brandon Potter as Jerry play off Brusasco’s conservative Jenkins with humor and irony. Rodney Garza as immigration attorney Carrasquillo counters Vela’s Democratic rhetoric with an even hand.
Set designer Timothy R. Mackabbee addresses both the epic quality of the issue as well as the very intimate nature of much of the conflict. Huge wooden panels encompass all three walls, accompanied by numerous huge upstage doors. The set has an Orwellian quality reminiscent of his 1941 film Citizen Kane. Clifton Taylor’s lighting design nicely complements the set design to evoke a wide emotional canvas, from the anguish of a brutal killing to the intimate scenes between the two young lovers.
Deferred Action puts on trial our bipartisan political system that feeds off the binary tension between two parties that often fail its constituents in pursuit of its internal political agendas. And equally important, it demonstrates that local talent, when offered equal opportunity and resources, can successful occupy main stages in large regional theaters.
» Teresa Marrero is Professor of Latin American and Latina/o Theater in the Spanish and Dance & Theater Departments at the University of North Texas. Marrero is a steering committee member of the national network, the Latina/o Theater Commons.