Four members of the Houses on the Moon Theater Company, an educational theater group take their places on the Passage Theater stage amid small piles of cardboard storage boxes. Framing them are a pair of clotheslines upon which are clipped countless documents, affidavits, legal briefs, letters, etc. Behind them is a screen that will be used to project photos and facts such as: “Each year approximately 100,000 unaccompanied immigrant children are apprehended trying to cross into the United States — 90,000 of these children are deported to Mexico without trial.”
The actors — Jose Aranda, Lina Gallegos, Mauricio Leyton, and Emily Joy Weiner — proceed to create a gripping, persuasive, and important documentary theater piece comprising almost entirely court transcripts, interviews, police reports, and psychiatric exams. In particular they are putting together the story of Guatemalan-born teen Edgar Chocoy-Guzman, who at the age of 14 illegally crossed the border into the United States in a desperate effort to escape life as a gang member. A little dramatic liberty is taken, they explain, to give shape to the story, although the dialogue that we hear in both English and Spanish is attributed to the real people who spoke it.
The play chronicles the route taken by Edgar (Aranda) after his mother left him to find work in the United States. She keeps her promise to send clothes to the then 10-year old Edgar and also to send money home. We are reminded that Guatemala had fallen into political, economic, and social chaos following the overthrow in 1954 of the democratically elected government that was largely engineered by the United States and funded by the CIA.
Although Edgar lived with his grandfather, his aunt and an uncle who sold drugs in their home, and a younger brother, there was little time for affection or concern for him at home. He, as do many young people who live in poverty, found security and support from a local street gang. The only way to leave the gang was by paying them a large sum of money, which Edgar did not have.
The gang’s name was Mara Salvatrucha, and once branded with the gang’s tattoo, MS, Edgar’s allegiance to the gang can never be broken or it will mean death to him and to family members. Because he is not 18, Edgar is used by the gang to deliver drugs.
Edgar flees and manages to get himself over the border and to finally locate his mother only to discover that life for him becomes a repetition of what he had experienced before. In the United States, he is spotted by a gang member and forced to join them. His mother throws him out of the house, and he is caught in the vicious and endless cycle of arrests and incarceration and without hope for education or a job.
To be sent back by the immigration authorities to Guatemala would mean his death, as he has been marked as a runaway by the gang. What comes to light is how many of the gangs in Mexico and Latin America actually have their roots in the United States. It was during the 1980s that many of the young immigrant aliens became even more empowered when they were deported back to their homeland.
With the use of slides and photos, the play offers visuals of the life these young adults have to face. Edgar finds an advocate in a lawyer, Kimberly Salinas (Weiner), who does what she can to convince the court that Edgar wants to change his life and that he has an aunt living legally in Virginia who will vouch for him. A good amount of testimony regarding Edgar’s case is presented, as is his communication with his family in letters. The play’s most poignant scene occurs as Edgar is being held for deportation by the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service and, with the assistance of his lawyer, makes a valiant plea for asylum.
Writer/director Jeffrey Solomon has structured the play to fit snugly within 70 minutes even as he keeps the momentum from ever slowing down. We can see that the legal and social services systems are as overwhelmed and inadequate as is the stultifying bureaucracy behind them.
The acting is notably restrained and compelling with Aranda a standout as Edgar. The other actors play multiple roles with Weiner’s performance particularly forceful as his lawyer. Gallegos switches gears impressively as Edgar’s mother, an unsympathetic judge, and a translator. Leyton is also effective as a counselor and mentor in juvenile hall and other roles.
The title “De Novo,” as explained in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law, refers to a de novo review, allowing complete retrial upon new evidence. The immigration system remains an incendiary topic, especially since the recent laws enacted in Colorado that allow “suspicious” people to be picked up without using words that might be construed as racial profiling. There are many words that can be used to explain and to exploit the problem we and our neighbors to the south are facing regarding illegal immigration, but none do justice to what fate has in store for Edgar and others like him when a plea for asylum is denied.
“De Novo: Beyond Borders (mas alla de las fronteras),” Saturday, September 17, 8 p.m., and Sunday, September 18, 3 p.m., Mill Hill Playhouse, located on the corner of Front and Montgomery Streets, Trenton. $20. Call 609-392-0766 or visit www.passagetheatre.org, or the Passage Theater office at 219 East Hanover Street, Trenton. Tickets are also available at the door one hour before each performance at the Mill Hill Playhouse.