Americans who have heard of Ciudad Juárez might think of the northern Mexican city—lying just over the Rio Grande from its American sister, El Paso—in purely negative terms: a ferocious battleground of the Mexican Drug War; site of a horrifying epidemic of unsolved murders of young women (more than 1000 cases since 1993); even a beleaguered poster child for the The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the social tumult brought in its wake of foreign factories or maquiladoras.
New York and Abu Dhabi–based Theater Mitu's Juárez: A Documentary Mythology, which opened last night at Z Space, begins somewhat unexpectedly, then, with the sound of a film projector and the joyful images of a home movie.
A male voice with firsthand knowledge narrates what we see: an elaborate coronation of his sister as “queen” of the local Lions Club. This is Juárez as family, community and, we are told, pure theater, orchestrated “as usual” by the narrator’s father.
The home movie continues for a minute or two. But the sound of the projector quickly fades (since the film has long ago been transferred to video). The sound is theater too, and marks a certain distance, even as the images retain history, facts, memory.
We’re being introduced to a combination of artifice and artifact, which here goes by the name “documentary mythology” and will characterize the production’s increasingly elaborate attempt to bring us somewhere we might otherwise find inaccessible, obscure, even dangerous; a place we might otherwise avoid or dismiss.
But to turn away from Juárez is to dismiss more than the home movies of Rubén Polendo, Juárez’s director and Theater Mitu’s founding artistic director. As we come to realize over the next 100 minutes, it's to dismiss some reflection of ourselves.
Appropriate to the production’s hometown impetus, the stage has a homemade look: creased translucent tarps stretched out for screens, microphones and cables lying around, laptops and lamps. It's a makeshift and fluid set of properties manipulated by an ensemble cast of six (Kayla Asbel, Denis Butkus, Aysan Celik, Adam Cochran, Michael Littig and Justin Nestor), tasked with showing us just how close Ciudad Juárez really is.
To this end, the ensemble members (none of whom are Mexican natives) draw on the research and extensive interviews they conducted firsthand during repeated trips to both Juárez and El Paso between 2012 and 2013.
In the vein of Moises Kaufman and Tectonic Theater’s Laramie Project (2000), which delved into the aftermath of the 1998 Matthew Shepard murder, the actors serve not only as conduits for local voices—activists, psychologists, historians, grandmothers, journalists, businessmen—but also as interpreters of meaning.
In Juárez, the actors sometimes faithfully recreate the cadences of the interviews (in some cases played back to them through ear pieces). On other occasions, they take them in histrionic directions. Augmented by various visual flourishes and bodily contortions, the acting in these scenes is frequently labored and less than compelling.
Sometimes, and probably too often, the dialogue is sung to musical accompaniment. Setting off the words in this way proves only partly successful. And once or twice—including a section in which a dreamy memory of learning to swim in the Rio Grande mingles a sense of innocence with a shiver of premonition—it is eerily and seductively effective.
At their best, these and other strategies for re-staging a plethora of facts, opinions, memories, and local lore do provoke recognition, critical distance, or a frisson of emotion—all ways of homing in on a darkly veiled subject.
But Juarez—the place, the landscape, its people, the horror they live through, the sense they make of it, the resistance they offer—comes in and out of focus here. If the production is capable of some beautiful, even harrowingly beautiful moments, its almost manic self-positioning as mediator, translator, champion, and witness can end up placing the stress too heavily on the actors themselves, at the expense of their subjects.
Nevertheless, it is surely true, as the play contends, that Juárez is not very foreign terrain at all. The city is, rather, a deeply connected part of our world: the reflection just across the water of profound and abiding relationships, overlapping populations, traditions and experiences, and quintessential aspects of American society and power. Juárez, like San Francisco, like much of the globe, is in thrall to some notion of “progress.” We look away at our peril.
JUÁREZ: A Documentary Mythology
Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm; Saturday matinee at 2pm; Sunday at 5pm
Z Space, 450 Florida Street, SF
Tickets: $20.00 https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/945129