We know the things they wear or carry: A hoodie, a backpack, sneakers, hiking boots, plastic water jugs, a few cans of tuna. Though we are told their many different names — they are collectively thought of as the Latin American everyman, even if women sometimes risk the perilous trip as well. We know their ages, too — mostly twenties and thirties — for “crossing the border” is primarily a young man’s journey.
TEATRO LINEA DE SOMBRA ‘AMARILLO’
When: Through Oct. 29
Where: The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand on Navy Pier
Tickets: $25 – $54
Run time: 70 minutes, with no intermission
We are familiar with the various modes of transportation involved: Trains and vans, but mostly long stretches of walking through desert terrain under a scorching sun. And we know the dangers: Severe dehydration, violence, theft, corruption and extortion on the part of both “coyotes” and government officials.
As for the goal: To get to “the North,” a place that exerts a crazy magnetic pull — a place where they might share in some tiny part of the American Dream, or at least work until there is enough money to assure a slightly better existence back home.
Of course we know there will be no welcome mat for the travelers who manage to make it to the border alive. There will only be a great wall. Or deportation and other indignities, plus a powerful sense of dislocation. So why, even in the face of poverty and a limited future, would anyone leave home and embark on such a traumatic and often futile voyage?
That is one of the many questions that hover over “Amarillo,” the haunted and haunting collage of theater, music, movement, film, projections and rituals devised and performed by Mexico’s Teatro Linea de Sombra. Beautifully directed in a quasi-hallucinatory style by Jorge A. Vargas, the piece (I would call it “an incantatation” rather than “a play”), is now receiving its Midwest premiere on the stage of The Yard, Chicago Shakespeare’s new venue on Navy Pier, and is the latest entry in the ongoing Chicago International Latino Theater Festival.
Taking the journey in all its many manifestations here is a young man (the alternately wry and angry Raul Mendoza). Early on he races toward the massive earth-toned wall that dominates Jesus Hernandez’s stage design, lurching for something to grab hold of, but finding his efforts to scale the barrier futile. At one point he reads a letter he has written — more like a last testament — in which he says he has become “invisible,” a non-person who might be missing, lost or dead. He is a man with no papers. He has no country, and as he reminds us, no country really functions fairly. He is a lost soul.
Throughout, an old man (the show’s music master, Jesus Cuevas), moves onto the stage, chanting in a voice similar to that of throat-singing Tibetan monks. At one point, the clear plastic water jugs so emblematic of the migrant’s journey begin to crowd the stage like so many gravestones. Another extended sequence takes us back to the town where it all began, where the wives and pregnant women who were left behind have now given up on ever seeing or hearing from their men again, despite promises that they would come home. And it is where they have found a way to fend for themselves through a crafts collective.
In their brightly hued dresses, the women — a marvelous ensemble that includes Alicia Laguna, Maria Luna, Vianey Salinas and Antigona Gonzalez — move as if in a dream, suggesting a sort of magic realism even as documentary footage and photographs captures the reality of a migrant’s existence as it morphs into something nightmarish and surreal.
As it turns out, “Amarillo” is an elusive destination in Texas, a place where a sign for “Cadillac Ranch” is pitched in the ground as if to mock all who would move toward it. Going “north” turns out to be little more than a tantalizing illusion — an exercise in frustration and defeat. And if migrants leave home with hearts full of hope, they end up with this: A storm of sand-filled plastic bags that rain down on the stage like so many parched souls.
A remarkable piece of theater, “Amarillo” is a scorching commentary that moves far beyond any of the political cant that attaches itself to this subject.