The Crossing | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Teatro Vista

at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum

The climate in this part of the country keeps us all aware that there's such as thing as a killing cold, but our relatively short summers make us all but oblivious to the concept of a killing heat. To us, hot, humid air is an uncomfortable nuisance but of no real danger to any but those in frail health. So Teatro Vista, making its debut on an evening when eight inches of snow and ice covered the ground, faced a formidable challenge in trying to generate empathy for 20 anonymous men who died horribly in suffocating heat.

In the summer of 1987 19 undocumented workers paid a man calling himself "Gavilan Pollero" ("Chicken Hawk") to transport them from Mexico to the United States. The plan was to conceal the passengers in a locked boxcar for the two-hour journey from Juarez to Dallas ("Better to go in a boxcar than stuffed in the trunk of a car"). When they reached Dallas, Gavilan's assistant Mosco ("Fly"), who rode along in the boxcar, was to collect the remainder of the passage money and release the workers through a refuse trap in the floor. Unforeseen, however, was the fact that the boxcar would be hermetically sealed. That might not have proved fatal, but a malfunctioning engine forced the train to be sidetracked in a yard for the night. In the sweltering heat (estimated by medical examiners at more than 100 degrees) of the airtight prison all but one man died--Miguel Rodriguez managed to carve a small hole in the freight-car wall through which he could breathe ("I didn't tell the others," he sobs to the police afterward, "because I knew they would drag me away from it").

The story received only passing media attention in Mexico and virtually none in the United States. Fatalities are not uncommon along the Rio Grande, and few but their mothers and wives mourned these unfortunate men. But in Mexico the magical and the mundane are one and the same, and in El viaje de los cantores (literally "The Journey of the Singers," but translated here as "The Crossing"), Hugo Salcedo has created a drama rife with the mythos of high tragedy. In the prologue one of the travelers, gazing at the leviathan train that will eventually devour them, has a premonition: "Maybe we did it already. Maybe we're dead right now and don't know it." Immediately after we see the women who will be left behind in the appropriately named town of Ojo Caliente ("hell hole"), lined up formally in the manner of a Greek chorus and reciting what is easily recognizable as the ode that introduces the first episode in classical tragedy. We even have a blind prophet in the person of Mosco's grandmother, who attempts to comfort the pregnant wife of Chayo the poet, whose songs are sung by the doomed travelers on their crossing--a crossing of the border, certainly, but also the boundary between life and death. By the time we notice among the voyagers a stranger dressed like a Carmelite monk--a stranger who prays more and more fervently as the joyous singing around him becomes agonized panic--there is no doubt of his identity.

The Crossing exhibits characteristics of tragedy, but it cannot be called true tragedy because it has no central protagonist--unless it is all those people who seek a better life and an escape from squalor and poverty (represented in microcosm by these few men). Nor does this protagonist commit any particular crime against the universe that deserves to be punished. Salcedo's universe is already in disorder--a universe in which husbands and sons leave their homes and families to venture into the unknown, in which they must travel hiding like animals instead of walking proudly as men, in which absurd accidents result in the loss of many lives, and in which Christ himself perishes alongside those he is supposed to protect. The town priest can only appeal to his congregation, "This incident must serve as a stimulant for thought in all of us. . . . You, me, us, united one and all, are the ones who must fight for greater justice." The crime against the universe, says Salcedo, is ours for permitting such disorder to exist. And, he says, our horror at these terrible deaths should not be merely a catharsis but a spur to action and atonement.

While English cannot hope to duplicate the nuances of Salcedo's Spanish text, Raul Moncada's excellent translation conveys the power and dignity of Salcedo's words while retaining a surprising portion of its music. Director Henry Godinez has constructed an evenly paced production quite in keeping with the play's elevation of the parochial to the universal. The Crossing is clearly an ensemble piece. No one character is the focus; rather many small roles intertwine to make the whole. Yet memorable performances are given by Edward Torres and the Ishmael-like Mickey and Maricela Ochoa (who looks not a day over 23) as the grandmother. And the sentiment of the author is at all times reflected in the face of Silvia Gonzalez Scherer, the leader of the women's chorus. Such mature, expressive character actors are rare. The cavernous auditorium in the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum trends to dwarf David S. S. Davis's stark and minimal set, but it is an advantage for sound designer Jeffrey A. Webb, whose freight train growls its way past us.

The Crossing marks the first American and the first English production of Salcedo's play. It also marks the debut of Teatro Vista--"theater with a view"--whose goal is to present plays with themes "directly relating to the experiences of Latinos in this country and in Latin America." It's a noble goal and an auspicious beginning.

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