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A Critique of Amarillo by Teatro Línea de Sombra

Teatro Línea de Sombra, which translates directly to “Shadow Line Theatre,” is an innovative Mexican Theatre Company originally created as a cultural project in Monterrey in 1993. They are primarily interested in the collaboration of scenery, music, visual art, and other related disciplines with outreach and exchange in contemporary theatre nationally and internationally. Their work centers around political, physical, and theatrical border zones between what we can call theater in conversation with other artistic disciplines.

Amarillo, the name of a town in Northern Texas with a deep seeded and controversial history in Immigration services and border control, is by no means a traditional linear theatrical experience. With elements of video projections, Mexican “throat singing,” beautiful rows of swinging bags filled with sand, a Frida Khalo set up of a red sand filled “heart with holes punctured by cigarettes, layers of clothing, scaling walls, etc., this show proves to be a mesmerizing visual and visceral aesthetic experience. It demands from the audience a clear divorcement of what they expect and think of as “theater.” People coming to this show needing concrete storylines and characters will have a lot of trouble getting through this. Every time a hint of a story or the beginning of a narrative gets developed, the scene switches and devolves into intricate evocative physicality and imagery. What we are offered is “a kind of real-time collage,” as described by the Seattle Times, with more of a central theme of a Mexican Everyman who has left for Amarillo. He promised he would come back, but he hasn’t returned.

This spring Amarillo will travel to four U.S. cities in total, including Seattle at OntheBoards (November 2012), and will be screened at numerous cities in the Pacific Northwest with English subtitles. Of course this tour and availability of Spanish language theatre in the U.S. lines right up with Teatro Línea’s creative goal of fostering international collaboration and influence, but it also has a very interesting effect on the show’s actor to audience relationship, as pointed out by Spike F. in the OntheBoards.tv blog. This show was originally performed in Spanish for a Mexican audience that could directly relate to and empathize the journey of Amarillo, but when performed in English for a white American audience, the meaning is flipped. It then becomes about people who are actively searching for the kind of life the audience members possess. Instead of focusing on a connection, the focus then becomes the disconnect between audience and performer, with the underlying implication that we are the ones who have the agency and power to change the situation witnessed onstage. This play never openly comments on the U.S. Immigration system, and the performers are nothing if not open and excited to sharing their work here in the U.S. But from the opening lines, this sense of otherness created through a linguistic, cultural, and experiential barrier, feels purposeful and resonant.

We begin with a Mexican Everyman onstage who is being filmed live and projected onto the back wall of the stage. His opening lines are (in translation): “Who am I? Nobody. What are you looking at? What are you looking at if I’m nobody? Nobody. My name is Juan, Pedro, Fernando, Manuel…” This may be the only moment of the show that feels slightly confrontational towards the audience. It immediately challenges my expectations of this character as a white audience member, and also makes me aware of the implication that I am the one making him into nobody, making him into every other immigrant trying to cross the Mexican/American border. It’s too easy to forget about the hundreds of people attempting to cross our southern border each day, and this play definitely puts a wrench in that process. The Everyman is the only constant character that we’re able to hold onto, and these lines are repeated throughout the play by him and by other female company members each preluding a different personal immigration story. There are three specific moments in the play that center around telling real life stories of immigrants. A moment of reading letters from real-life immigrants to their loved ones back home in Mexico, one of two female company members questioning each other about how their husbands/sons died in the desert attempting to cross the border. And scattered moments of highlighting photographs of those gone missing on their way across with flashlights in the dark, projecting video and still images of immigrant’s experiences, and different forms of the questioning/interrogation between different company members about why their family members never returned. These concrete moments are definitely sobering glimpses into the immigrant experience, and a reminder of the inherently human nature of this political and economic conflict still unresolved in our country.

A major construct and recurring image in this play is sand and the desert. The pre-show begins with women filling and stocking gallon jugs of water onto rows of shelves on either side of the stage, creating survival packs for those about to partake on this journey, including canned food, water, a flashlight, and extra clothes. They then tape up pictures and ads of those missing or lost to the border crossings over the shelves, until the Everyman enters. This motif of preparing the space for the border crossing is concurrent throughout the show. Company members place and remove rows of water jugs, some strategically illuminated with flashlights, at which point an image of the stage is projected onto the back wall, creating a mirror ceiling of sorts. And then the sand begins to slowly encroach and cover everything, beginning with the red sand heart between the two women in beautiful dresses, and ending with rows and rows of suspended sandbags punctured one by one to fill the stage slowly and beautifully from above. The performance plays with visual metaphor in a way that has never before been so clearly recognizable to me.

Almost the entire performance is underscored by this incredibly haunting Mexican throat singing. At first it sounded like a synthetically generated sound either made by a computer or a didgeridoo, and then this salt of the earth bike/rancher Latin wise man comes on stage and I discover that he is in fact making these noises with his mouth, and I am subsequently floored. This was a brilliant addition to this performance. It added a sense of ritual and history to the “story” that made it ever more empathetic and effecting. A generous portion of the show is intensely physically challenging choreographed movement that includes sprinting, rappelling, scaling walls, acrobats over and under tables, frenzied dancing and sexualized fighting, and the musical store underneath it not only propelled it forward but also connected all of the actors onstage in a sense of tradition and camaraderie that helped the show to be cohesive.

The most powerful thing about Amarillo is what it chooses to not be about. It isn’t about American Immigration officers chasing down illegal runaways, or being deported back to a country that is no longer one’s home, or any of the other major issues typically talked about when Immigration enters the conversation. It’s about that single or two person cross on foot across a desert. That resilience, and hope, and suffering all encompassed with little dialogue or linear story. In evoking this experience, a story told in the traditional sense of theater would not be an accurate representation. This experience is a barrage of objects, images, words, movement, and sound that viscerally evokes crossing the border, and in no other way would it have been as effective. This is an incredibly timely show that addresses all the issues surrounding immigration without ever putting judgment on it. With the new immigration bill going through the Senate, and increased pressure for easier pathways to legalization and citizenship for those who actually manage to make this crossing and survive it, Amarillo brings an incredibly human and artistic lens to an issue that has become more about numbers and dollars than people.

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