Immigration is a hot political issue. Theatre must, of course, address it — but not by lecturing or arguing. Theatre’s way is to bring together characters and audiences, and let the characters’ stories become part of the audience’s lives. It’s a kind of magic.
Seven women are performing that magic right now, at the Skylight Theatre. In America Adjacent, a smart, densely packed new play by Boni Alvarez, they’re creating the experience of a group of women who’ve come to America from the Philippines.
[Sandy Velasco, Toni Katano, Arianne Villareal (photo: Ed Krieger]
But these aren’t your usual immigrants. In fact, they’re not immigrants at all. One is a US citizen, and the other six have arrived not to become Americans — but to give birth to them. They’re pregnant, and babies born here have automatic US citizenship. For mothers-to-be from Asia, LA is the place to come. This semi-clandestine practice, called “birth tourism,” isn’t actually illegal — but ICE swiftly deports any woman they suspect.
Of course, we don’t know any of this when the lights come up. We just watch woman after woman enter an apartment living room jammed with recliner chairs being used as beds. The five of them are pregnant and keeping a low profile — no noise, no going out except to the back yard. They remind each other of the rules, bicker when one returns from a forbidden off-site jaunt, and invoke the feared power of “The Administrator.”
Then there’s a knocking at the door. Everyone hides. The administrator bursts in, bringing food, housekeeping supplies and a newcomer, a “country girl” who gets teased by the others (who are from cities – Manila, Quezon, Davao, Cagayan.) The administrator, no older than they are, chastens and warns them while taking the new resident’s money and passport “for safekeeping.” They complain that they haven’t seen Hollywood or Disneyland, as promised. We wonder — as do they — whether the administrator is honest or running a racket.
Later, when the newcomer follows the rule-breaker out the back gate and into the wilds of LA, we begin to realize just how innocent and at risk these women are. And we learn, as they talk and wonder, how profoundly going to America to have a baby has disrupted every one of their lives. None of them is sure what she will find when she returns home (and none can imagine the “reverse culture shock” that awaits).
Enough plot. The heart of this play is the women – the state of anxiety they live in, triggered by everything from jets flying over to sirens and door knocking. And the threads of pleasure they grasp – sharing memories and songs, choosing baby names, peering over the back fence into the lives of a neighboring couple.
The actors, who work together as smoothly as an ensemble company, bring the women clearly to life. Toni Katano floats as a languid courtesan who may be losing her position, while Samantha Valledon’s country girl vibrates with fear but drives the group to hard questions. Evie Abat, as the rule breaker, nicely hides the anguish of postpartum depression beneath her daredevil exterior; Arianne Villareal’s timid piety, meanwhile, concealsan awful, complex secret. Angela Baesa deftly portrays the anxious peacemaker, while Sandy Velasco shines at injecting playfulness – and hope – into the stress-filled mix. Hazel Lozano’s administrator surprises us with her youth, her briskness, and her caring.
Director Jon Lawrence Rivera keeps these several brooks running swift and clear; his pace allows the moments in Alvarez’s text to pop like fireworks, keeping us as off-balance as the anxious women. Christopher Scott Murillo’s set gives us familiarity and discomfort, and Mylette Nora’s costumes mark the characters and their uncertain perch in an unknown world.
America Adjacent is a world premiere that addresses an explosive political issue. “What an indictment of our messed-up system,” a seat mate said afterward. But Alvarez’s text, and Skylight’s lively, skillful staging, introduce this American story – one few of us are aware of – by letting us live in a hidden corner of the immigrant experience. Come to the little theatre in Los Feliz and let it open your world.
America Adjacent, by Boni B. Alvarez, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera.
Presented by Skylight Theatre Company, at the Skylight, 1816-½ N. Vermont Ave., LA 90027.
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30,
Sundays at 3:00,
Mondays (in March) at 8:00;
through March 24.