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Unintended consequences and more

A Cornerstone production looks at the human, judicial and economic repercussions of illegal immigration in the U.S. from both sides.

June 09, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

In these polarized political times, problems can become dangerously abstract. Empathy is the first casualty on the ideological battlefield, which is why it's easier for us to demonize the other side than to recognize its human face.

Cornerstone Theater Company's "Los Illegals" is a timely antidote to the way the current immigration policies are being debated, as though the issues could be boiled down to numbers instead of names. This outdoor production, which opened Thursday in a parking lot at the Armory Northwest in Pasadena, reminds us that, as talking heads grandstand, lives -- of the documented and undocumented alike -- hang in the balance.

The play, written by Cornerstone's new artistic director, Michael John Garces, represents the first in an ambitious five-part series of theatrical works exploring the ways in which laws shape and potentially shatter communities. Projected to unfold over the next 2 1/2 years, this "Justice Cycle" will subsequently tackle the effect of laws on reproductive rights, prisoner populations and the environment, culminating in a final offering that will bring together the previous four.

In "Los Illegals," the Cornerstone spirit of inclusiveness is evident not just in the multiethnic ensemble in which professional actors appear side by side with community participants and unapologetically hold forth in a mixture of Spanish and English, but also in the multiplicity of perspectives on hand. With the notable exception of Lou Dobbs' demagoguery, nearly all points of view are accounted for, with a goal of nudging us closer to some form of compassionate consensus.

Gentle advocacy, in other words, is Garces' playwriting method, which at times might be sympathetic to a fault. Every character has to have a sensitive lining, so that even the more callous types get to share a Starbucks double latte or can of Coke and reveal the pressures and conflicting forces weighing on them.

Dramatically, the play is overstuffed. As an encounter with the day laborers at a center established for them on the grounds of a Home Depot-like store, the piece is most effective at helping us understand the double binds of these workers, who are trying to navigate a system that is as eager to exploit their cheap availability as it is to call them a threat to the American job market.

But when the plot kicks in with a police investigation of an alleged crime involving one of the workers and a woman who claims to have been assaulted, an awkward tension develops between the documentary-like atmosphere, in which the audience sits at tables with the actors at the day labor center, and the more cooked-up theatrics that lead to the inevitable courtroom drama.

What's attempted here is a blend between Lope De Vega's Spanish Golden Age classic "Fuente Ovejuna" (in which peasants collectively assume guilt for a crime after long-oppressive hardship) and an unvarnished "Law & Order" episode. But more compelling are the less contrived dramatic developments, such as the daily conflicts that erupt between the day laborers and the manager of the store that's been forced by the city council to play host to the center. Equally convincing are the resentments that build between the regulated and unregulated workers who are competing against each other in the same tiny market.

Of course, there's also the ongoing war between those who want tougher immigration laws and more vigorous enforcement and those who advocate for the rights of the undocumented. On the enforcement side is Brenda (Bahni Turpin), an African American who rouses the crowd by decrying how "desperate people from other countries" are taking jobs at "a third of the salary" and destroying the opportunities her "people fought so hard for." On the rights side are Kim (Page Leong), a representative of Immigrant Action, and Nathan (Andrew Cohen), a lawyer for Jornaleros Unidos (United Day Laborers), who walk the legal system tightrope to serve their vulnerable clients.

"Los Illegals" also includes two profiles of immigrants making the arduous journey to the U.S., one walking through the desert, another stowed in the back of a refrigerated truck. These stories, which are enhanced with film footage and told in occasionally high-flown poetic language, keep us mindful of the risk entailed for the possibility of a less impoverished future.

The production, directed by Shishir Kurup, doesn't aspire to the theatrical sophistication of French director Ariane Mnouchkine's epic "Le Dernier Caravanserail (Odysees)"/"The Last Caravan Stop (Odysseys)," which explored the global refugee crisis by focusing on a few notorious camps in France, Australia and other places where largely Middle Eastern asylum seekers had been held in legal limbo. And the play itself is such a loose compilation that it can't compare to the Lope masterpiece it pays homage to.

But "Los Illegals" is still supremely worthwhile as a grass-roots corrective to the national conversation. The human dimension of the immigration issue is not just discussed but embodied. And no matter where you come down on the debate, there is no way to distance yourself from a communal reality that implicates all of us.


`Los Illegals'

Where: Cornerstone Theater at Armory Center for the Arts Northwest, 965 N. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays

Ends: June 24

Price: $20 suggested donation

Contact: (213) 613-1700, Ext. 33

Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

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