Dying of thirst and stripped to their underwear, the headstrong Latina and the immigrant-bashing talk-radio host are staggering together through the northern Mexican desert. How they got there is a story of karmic comeuppance involving a brutal kidnapping, a vicious hate crime, a romantic betrayal and the unappeased ghosts of guilt and shame that haunt both characters.
Like trails in a dusty landscape, those narrative lines converge in Josefina Lopez's two-act satirical drama "Detained in the Desert," which opens Friday at the tiny Casa 0101 theater in Boyle Heights.
Set in summer 2010, "Detained" derives much of its passionate point of view from America's current immigration debate, including the fierce polemics surrounding Arizona's pending immigration-related statute.
But the play's themes also are deeply personal for Lopez, an actor, director, playwright, novelist and screenwriter ("Real Women Have Curves"), the daughter of migrants from the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi. Although her parents came here legally, Lopez and five of her siblings were undocumented for many years because they were born in Mexico.
Until immigration laws were reformed in 1986, Lopez said, she lived as a virtual alien without rights in her family's adopted home of Boyle Heights. As a little girl she "thought maybe I was from an alien planet, because we weren't human beings."
"I just get really sad because we're just so invisible," Lopez said, referring to other undocumented migrants. "We've been here for so long, and we're still invisible."
Directed by Hector Rodriguez, the play has a tone that oscillates from funny and tender to savagely ironic. Its action is triggered when a Mexican American college student (TV regular Yvonne Delarosa) and her Canadian boyfriend (Tyler Cook) are detained by a policeman in Arizona. Simultaneously, talk-radio ranter Lou Becker (Carey Fox) mysteriously goes missing from his studio.
"Detained in the Desert" is one of two immigration-themed productions that will be playing in Los Angeles in October. The other, "La Victima," staged by Jose Luis Valenzuela's Latino Theater Company at downtown's Los Angeles Theatre Center, starts out in the early years of a new century, as Mexican migrants are flooding across the border while the United States is about to be preoccupied fighting a war halfway around the world.
But the year is 1910, not 2010, when the Mexican Revolution began driving hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees into the U.S. "La Victima" then moves forward into the 1930s, '50s and '70s, tracing the shifting fortunes of a Mexican immigrant family that is tolerated in eras when the U.S. needs more low-paid workers or soldiers but deported whenever the economy sours and politicians start calling for a crackdown on "illegals."
Written and originally produced in 1976 by members of the then- Santa Barbara-based El Teatro de la Esperanza, "La Victima" was restaged by the Latino Theater Lab, the Latino Theater Company's predecessor organization, in 1987. It was revived by the same group, with Valenzuela directing, in a 1994 production at Plaza de la Raza, as a fundraiser against California's Proposition 187.
If the play seems as timely today as it did 20 or even 35 years ago, Valenzuela said, that's because the same political debate keeps recycling every couple of decades. "That's the most incredible thing, to think that a work that's nearly 40 years old, that was written for a specific historical moment, is returning now," said Valenzuela, the company's longtime artistic director.
Part domestic melodrama, part historical agitprop, the 12-character play uses period folk songs, slide projections, Brechtian staging and occasional comic touches to poeticize its more overt political passages. The production is framed by a large abstract set design suggesting a border fence.
One thing that has changed since the work was previously staged, Valenzuela said, is the audience. In earlier productions most of the script was in English; this time the text is split between English and Spanish, with supertitles in both languages.
Venezuela compares the play's subject matter to that of classical dramas. "Imagine the will that each immigrant has to have," he said. "Imagine the solitude of the immigrant, to leave your country, to leave your family, to go to a country where you don't know the language, to try to survive, to contribute to the country however you can. To me, that is heroic."
Less epic in scope, but equally intended to spark discussion, "Detained in the Desert" was written by Lopez in four days. She said that her research included listening to conservative talk radio, reading about federal hate crime prosecutions (which have been rising nationally) and spending several days with Enrique Morones, founder of the nonprofit Border Angels group, which leaves water, food and clothing at points across the desert for would-be migrants. Morones also spoke to the play's 11-member cast.
Delarosa, the first-generation daughter of a Colombian mother, said the play "is compassionate to both sides" of the immigration debate and recognizes that every group of people tends to harbor unconscious biases against newcomers. "Latinos get brainwashed by this stuff all the time and turn on new immigrants," she said.
Fox called the immigration issue "a hot potato politically, and no one wants to take the lead."
"That's what's great about Josefina is she's fearless," he said.
Hollywood and the entertainment mainstream have shown little appetite for such leadership. Putting on topical plays that also entertain is still a struggle, Lopez said, financially and otherwise. That's why she's hoping for a turnout this month that will stretch the storefront playhouse's capacity.
How many can it hold? she was asked.
"The joke is if it's mostly white people, 50," Lopez said, laughing, "but if it's Mexicans, more like 70."