'To the Bone' Explores Workers' Lives Outside the Law

(L to R) Juana (Sarita Ocón) confronts the angelic Carmen (Carla Gallardo) in the Ubuntu Theater Project's production of 'To the Bone' by Lisa Ramirez. (Photo: Courtesy of the Company)

Lisa Ramirez’s To The Bone is not only a vicious melodrama about the lives of a group of immigrant women working in a New York poultry factory, but also a philosophical disquisition. The disquisition is just as vicious as the melodrama, showing what happens to people when they live outside the law. And by outside the law, I don’t mean that the workers are undocumented -- though most of them are -- or that their illegal status makes them ersatz criminals. No, Ramirez is after something more elusive and terrifying: a world where the law does not exist, and, paradoxically, is always in full force.

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The daring Ubuntu Theater Project is always flirting with some combination of high art theater, rip-out-the-gut tales of woe, and liberationist politics. Heady, artsy, and visceral, the company provides a much-needed antidote to the toothless posturing that passes for political theater in the Bay Area. In To the Bone, director Michael Socrates Moran and his excellent cast plunge into Ramirez’s unsettling slice of everyday nightmare with a subtle and sure step.

Strikingly, our first glimpse of this hell is one of simple routine. A house full of women struggles to maintain what seems to be an unending cycle of work, home, food, sleep, and work again. It’s close to an animal’s life, though these animals are cursed with dreams and imagination.

(L to R) Olga (Lisa Ramirez) and her daughter Lupe (Juliana Aiden) try to imagine the future in the Ubuntu Theater Project's production of 'To the Bone' by Lisa Ramirez.
(L to R) Olga (Lisa Ramirez) and her daughter Lupe (Juliana Aiden) try to imagine the future in the Ubuntu Theater Project's production of 'To the Bone' by Lisa Ramirez. (Photo: Courtesy of the Company)

The haunted Juana (a terrific and subtle Sarita Ocón) falls into a fugue state every night, reliving the moment before her daughter’s disappearance at the border. Olga, the only one with a green card, is bitter and ready for revolt, while desperately trying to guide her skater punk daughter Lupe to a better life. And the good-natured Reina’s front of cautious optimism hides a brutal realist who cannot and will not imagine escape.

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As in both drama and life, all you need is one slight change to upset the established order. And so, like magic, Reina’s angelic niece Carmen appears. The women house her, get her a job at the factory, and even introduce her to Jorge, a young man of exceptional kindness. Carmen's mere presence, virginal and full of hope, subtly changes the dynamics of the house, and, fleetingly, what seems possible. And that’s when the real terror begins.

What Ramirez makes clear is that when you have no recourse to the law -- even if you're beautiful, kind, and innocent -- the law turns into an arbitrary, destructive force. It is both unfocused and annihilating. By turning that insight into drama, To the Bone demands that the invisible world of immigrant workers be seen: not as injustice -- that means you’re in the system -- but instead as the reduction of life to its barest state.

You can feel the absence of an ordered world in the way the villainous owner of the poultry plant, Daryl (an off-handed and terrifying William Hartfield), feels put upon when confronted with his crimes. Or the way the women scream at Olga and call her a “beast” for still believing in any semblance of the law. Or the way Carmen is in constant danger simply by attracting attention.

To say that these issues are in the news would be an understatement. Heather Knight’s front-page story for Apr. 2's San Francisco Chronicle --  “SF courts anything but safe for some immigrants” -- is all about establishing a relationship between illegal immigrants and the law. Under the Trump administration those connections will certainly fray more and possibly completely sever. See To the Bone and you’ll want to fight against that ever happening, even though it already is and has been for a long time.

At the end of the play there is a call to not forget. But it seems more wistful than possible. How can we remember those who are outside the law? And who would have guessed that there is a state of being beyond injustice, and that next to its horrors injustice would seem a fairly mild sentence?

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'To the Bone' runs through Sunday, Apr. 30 at the Brooklyn Preserve in Oakland. For tickets and information click here.

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