In Chicago we know them as the members of landscaping crews or restaurant staffs, hotel workers, paleta vendors, the scavengers we see heading through alleys in rickety, high-sided pickup trucks, hunting for salvage. Legal or otherwise, Mexican immigrants seem self-contained, foreign, and anonymous. We debate their origins endlessly, yet haven't the first notion who they might be.
Chicano playwright Luis Alfaro has found a very strange but powerful way of engaging this mystery. Over the last decade or so he's written three plays that cast immigrant lives in terms of classical Greek narratives—mythologizing them where the conventional impulse might be to try and humanize them. The first, Electricidad (which premiered at Goodman Theatre in 2004), transfers Sophocles's Electra to America's southwestern desert and turns the vengeful title character into the daughter of a murdered drug lord. In Alfaro's marvelous Oedipus el Rey, the Theban tragedy unfolds at a chop shop in the Los Angeles barrio.
And now there's Mojada. Receiving its world premiere in a Victory Gardens Theater production directed by Chay Yew, Alfaro's latest reimagines the mother of all Greek tragic figures, Medea, as a quiet seamstress occupying a two-flat in our town's own Pilsen neighborhood.
The way Euripides told the story back in 431 BCE, Medea was a barbarian princess who fell in love with the adventurous Jason and used her formidable wit and will and magic to help him obtain the Golden Fleece from her father, the king of Colchis. Her one condition was that Jason take her away with him when he made his escape. He did, and they had two sons together.
But when their travels led them to Corinth, King Creon offered Jason his daughter, Glauce. Ever the opportunist, Jason took the deal and dumped Medea.
The action of Euripides's play covers the spurned woman's grief and appalling revenge. Pretending to beg protection for herself and her children, she sends Glauce a magnificent gown laced with a poison that kills both the new bride and Creon. Then Medea denies Jason his posterity by taking a knife and slaughtering their sons. She's last seen flying off with them in the sun's chariot.
Alfaro's version is remarkably faithful, considering. The Colchis of the piece is the Mexican state of Michoacan, and Medea is a landowner's daughter who's sacrificed everything and more to bring Jason to El Norte, along with their son, Acan, and an old family nurse named Tita. A series of speeches—delivered by the estimable Socorro Santiago as Tita—make us vividly aware of just how brutal the crossing was.
Medea feels lost, though, in her American Corinth on the southwest side of Chicago. One of Alfaro's crucial insights—expressed not only in this play but in Electricidad and Oedipus el Rey as well—is his recognition of the psychic gap that may yawn between new immigrants and their so-called promised land. Medea is essentially a peasant, more at home with spells and herbs, hand-sewn seams and Tita's feudal subservience, than with an urban culture of progress measured in acquisition. She can't understand Jason's obsessive desire to "better" their lives. She's out of touch with Acan's fondness for new gadgets and clothes. Time itself means something entirely different to her than it does to her more adaptable menfolk. She doesn't know how to forget the past and become a new person, or why that should be a good idea. She thinks in terms of eternity.
Between her alienation and the trauma she endured on her journey, Medea can't bring herself to leave the confines of her two-flat, even to explore a neighborhood ostensibly full of people just like her. As Tita says of a banana tree she and Medea are trying to coax into bearing fruit, "It refuses to settle here as much as we do."
And then along comes Glauce. Called Armida here and played extra tough by Sandra Marquez, she's a successful businesswoman whose papers are fake but whose zest for down and dirty capitalism is 100 percent authentic. No wonder Jason can't resist her.
All this is fascinating, and goes a long way toward opening a view into the immigrant cosmos. If you ask me, I'd say you should see this show. But something is missing. In Oedipus el Rey—a true masterpiece, both as written and as staged by Yew at Victory Gardens in 2012—the poetry of mythological resonances complemented the grit of the modern-day setting, exalted it, so that we knew something vast was taking place in Oedipus's grungy LA world. Pretty much the opposite happens with Medea. The poetry is overwhelmed by the grunge.
Although Yu Shibigaki's set has to be appreciated for its uncanny verisimilitude in replicating a Pilsen backyard, its ultimate effect is to give the story lead shoes. Similarly, Sandra Delgado's performance never gets at the tribal priestess in Medea—the imperious chieftain's daughter whose rage, unleashed, takes horrible forms, the woman who is not to be crossed. As it is, the Medea we get comes off as nothing more than a wounded soul, and in this case that's not enough.