Bold DE NOVO: BEYOND BORDERS at Passage Theatre

by Patrick Maley

From the gangland to the courtroom to the stage of Trenton’s Passage Theatre, the story of young Edgar Chocoy proves treacherous, pitiable, and thanks in large part to Jeffrey Solomon and the Houses on the Moon Theater Company’s powerful DE NOVO: BEYOND BORDERS, at all times gripping.

A documentary play crafted from materials like court transcripts, interviews, and letters, DE NOVO introduces us to Edgar as a 16-year old appellant in immigration court. He had been a member of the most powerful street gang in Guatemala, but quit and was immediately “green lighted” for assassination. After his mother scrapes together seven thousand dollars for a human smuggler, Edgar escapes to Los Angeles. There, patterns of violence, intimidation, and bewilderment repeat themselves, and Edgar finds himself facing deportation. He requests asylum, claiming that returning to Guatemala would mean immediate death, finds himself lucky enough to be granted a pro bono attorney, and stands trial for his right to stay in the United States and, as his appeal suggests, for his life.

The four Houses on the Moon performers who people all of DE NOVO’s characters begin the play ostensibly out of character, telling the audience that they are about to present “A documentary play about the undocumented created entirely from documents.” The scenery around them is sparse: a stack of legal boxes up-center, another down-left, a large screen at the back on which pictures are projected at certain points throughout the play, and two clotheslines, running diagonally from up-center to down-right and left respectively, littered with papers and documents. These, we come to learn, are the sort of documents that gave Mr. Solomon his material: court briefings, interview transcripts, newspapers, and so on. Occasionally the performers will take a document and read from it, but most of the time they loom there—cluttered, verbose, and sterilely finite—as a constant reminder of a life defined almost entirely by its transcription.

As with some of its great documentary theater predecessors like Anne Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror or The Tectonic Theater Project’s The Laramie Project, DE NOVO uses far fewer performers than the characters it presents. Aside from Jose Aranda who, as Edgar and only Edgar, gets to explore the depths of his character most fully and impressively, the other three players step into various roles as the story demands. In a play deeply invested in deconstructing simple polarities, it is especially intriguing that each of the role-juggling actors takes up at least one character solidly on Edgar’s side and at least one of the icy, juridical opposition: Lina Gallegos plays both Edgar’s mother and his trial judge, Emily Joy Weiner is mostly Edgar’s attorney but also gives voice at several points to the police, while Mauricio Leyton moves nimbly between the court prosecutor and a former gang member who councils Edgar on moving beyond the life. The shifts are smooth and easily recognizable, and the effect is a stark juxtaposition: a humanizing isolation of Edgar on the one hand, while stressing on the other hand the at times frustrating, at times agonizing cacophony of voices swirling around his confused existence. The play’s most moving scenes are Edgar’s jailhouse letters, passionately appealing to his mother for company and human compassion, and its most frustratingly disheartening scene comes later, as the voices of three actors collide in the recitation of painfully sterile legalese.

Edgar functions in this play as both the pathos-filled subject of documentary investigation and the synecdochical figure that stands in for many more exactly like him. DE NOVO’s first image is a slide projection telling us that every year close to 80,000 children are apprehended crossing from Central America into the United States unaccompanied, and with the vast majority being immediately sent back, only about 8,000 of them make it to court. Edgar is one of those few, and this play is an investigation into exactly how lucky those few may or may not be to get their day in court or—perhaps more accurately—to be assigned a case number by the justice system. DE NOVO makes little claim to subtlety in its message or politics. The program note contains an epigraph from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law, defining “a de novo review” as “allowing complete retrial upon new evidence,” and this play calls for precisely that. Not so much a retrial for Edgar Chocoy or any specific child in similar circumstances, but rather a retrial of how the American justice system treats Edgar and those like him. The play calls for a retrial upon new evidence, and seeks to enter itself as that evidence.

Perhaps it is a natural byproduct of the politically-inflected documentary theater, but in its dedication to giving a powerful voice to the powerfully voiceless, DE NOVO slides at times into the realm of heavy-handedness. Mr. Leyton’s councilor character, for example, has several long monologues that give passionate voice to the victimization of kids drawn into gangs and their struggles to survive a life without that structure. These are informative and moving speeches to be sure, but drift into the territory of the pulpit rather than the stage. The bluntness continues when Ms. Joy Weiner’s lawyer character delivers a closing statement, rehashing all the points and particulars of Edgar’s life and struggle—just in case the audience hadn’t been paying attention to that point.

I suspect Mr. Solomon and House on the Moon would make no apologies for their bluntness, nor should they be expected to. This is less a play of ideas than it is agitprop: theater of political action hoping to inspire political action in its audience. That Saturday night’s talk-back session with a real-life child immigration lawyer began immediately after the show’s curtain call—seemingly before the audience had finished their applause—demonstrates how invested this production is in its message. Houses on the Moon espouses a mission “to dispel ignorance and isolation through the theatrical amplification of unheard voices,” and in order to do that DE NOVO gives a crisp, loud, and unencumbered voice to Edgar Chocoy, his supporters, and the thousands just like him. Sometimes subtlety just won’t do.

Insightful, enlightening, and often riveting, DE NOVO forces us to reconsider the nameless faces of gang violence, the forces behind the waves of illegal child migration from Central America, and above all the notion of “choice.” The play asks us what “choice” Edgar ever really had or made freely for himself, and underscores the terror and tenuousness of a life defined at all times by the decisions of others in power. The borders it asks us to move beyond are not simply national or legal, but rather the borders enclosing any simplified understandings of youth, crime, violence, and fear.

DE NOVO: BEYOND BORDERS (Más Allá de las Fronteras)
Written, curated, and directed by Jeffrey Solomon
Sept 10-18. 2011
Passage Theatre Company
at Mill Hill Playhouse
205 East Front Street
Trenton NJ
(609) 392-0766

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