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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

I Come from Arizona
Children's Theatre Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn and Two Degrees

Luca La Hoz Calassara and Ayssette Muñoz
Photo by Dan Norman
Children's Theatre Company's world premiere of I Come from Arizona by Carlos Murillo provides a realistic glimpse into the way headlines about immigration raids, children separated from their parents by immigration officials, and the plight of "dreamers" are felt by a fairly typical teenage Latina. Murillo's characters, their dialogue, and the narrative he has devised truthfully portray the painful hardships imposed on those recently arrived in America—like millions before them over the course of two centuries—seeking escape from lives of desperation, and also allow us hope for navigating those hazards and achieving that "better life," if not for themselves, then for their children.

We see this world through the eyes of Gabi, who has gained freshman admission to Northside Prep, a prestigious public high school for high achievers in a gentrified north side Chicago neighborhood. This means venturing on her own for the first time outside Pilsen, the Mexican-American neighborhood she has lived in all her life, and where she attended Pilsen Academy, where 88% of students are identified as Hispanic. This is itself a huge transition for Gabi, but at the same time her father is called home—back to Arizona—to see his dying father, whom Gabi has never met. During his absence, Gabi's mother must work nights as well as days to earn enough to keep the family going. Gabi becomes responsible for picking up her eight-year-old brother Jesús at his after-school program, preparing their supper, helping Jesús with his homework and putting him to bed before she can start on her own rigorous homework—on top of her hour and a half trip, each way, on two busses and a train, to get to Northside Prep.

Gabi is exhausted, insecure around her new classmates, and most distressingly, begins having troubling questions about her family's past. She encounters students with anti-immigrant views and struggles with a class assignment on family roots, a topic her mother adamantly refuses to address. Her parents have always told Gabi, if she is asked about her heritage, to just say "I come from Arizona." Stories about ICE raids make her wonder if she and her family are vulnerable to such actions. What about her absent father? Is he really in Arizona, and if not, is there a risk that he will not return to them? Gabi is encouraged by her hard-ass teacher Ms. Chan to insist that she has a right to know where she is from, not merely to complete her assignment but to be a whole person. She is also provoked by two students who transferred to Northside Prep from Francis Parker, an elite private school: Ricardo, who is friendly and warm, if a bit clueless; and Fiona, wrapped in a bubble of white privilege.

Murillo adapted I Come from Arizona from his earlier play August and Noble which premiered in 2013 at Chicago's Adventure Stage. The intervening years have not lessened the stress of children like Gabi and Jesús, living in the shadows, and over the past two years darker clouds have been cast upon them. Murillo clearly is on the side of those seeking that illusive "better life," and the hope that the American Dream is not a waking nightmare. He evokes empathy for Gabi and for her parents, who are driven by equal measures of desperation and love. He also writes their dialogue, especially for Gabi's mother Dolores, that mixes a lot of Spanish with her limited English, but with enough context to make it always understood by the audience—if not word for word, enough to keep the plot moving and, more importantly, convey her feelings.

Director Lisa Portes uses transitions between scenes to convey the flow of life in the bustling Pilsen neighborhood and a frenetic high school corridors between classes. The scenes in Gabi's home have a cloistered feeling, constantly vigilant against unspoken outside dangers. In contrast, the scenes at Gabi's school, have an open, airy feeling—with more light (indicated by a descending fluorescent light fixture that would be at home in any K-12 school setting) and air, yet it is here where Gabi feels vulnerable and ill at ease.

Gabi is unquestionably the central character, and Chicago-based actor Ayssette Muñoz gives a great performance in her Twin Cities debut. Muñoz comes across believably as a fourteen-year-old, while expressing the complicated mix of fear, frustration and hopes that Gabi carries with her. She is a mature caretaker of her younger brother, but can also descend into sibling squabbling in an instant. There are several scenes calling for her to express extreme emotional turmoil, and Muñoz shows Gabi struggling to deal with these adult concerns as the innocence of her youth begins to crumble. It is superb work.

Nora Montañez, as Dolores, matches Muñoz with a performance that conveys weariness and weight on her shoulders. We see the light in her eyes at those rare moments that provide her a bit of joy or pride; more often her eyes burn with exhaustion and fear. In a climactic exchange with Gabi, Montañez becomes a pillar, gaining strength from the memory of what she has endured. Montañez also does something wonderful in a very small role as Yadira, housemaid to Fiona's family. Fiona introduces Gabi to Yadira as she serves snacks to Fiona and her friends, saying "Gabi's family is also from Mexico." Montañez, as Yadira, brightens with the pleasure of greeting a compatriot, asking "what part of Mexico?" When Gabi blurts out "No, we're from Arizona," Yadira responds with a hushed "Si, claro," (yes, of course) while lowering her eyes, a gesture that says she understands and will say no more.

Ricardo Vázquez, a multi-talented actor, has far less to do as Gabi's father, but tenderly expresses his love for his family and pride in Gabi's accomplishments. He is a brief but fearsome presence as a homeless veteran Gabi encounters on the "L". Luca La Hoz Calassara is impressive as eight-year-old Jesús, playing with gusto with his toy truck while wailing that he's not a kid anymore. When told that things "will be alright," he huffs back "that's something you say to a five year old!" Madison Neal, somewhat overplays Fiona's self-absorption, snotty retorts and unthinking privilege. Then, many an actual fourteen-year-old overplays those qualities (and thankfully outgrows them). As Ricardo, Antonio De La Vega is convincingly unsure of himself as a high school freshman and shows us Ricardo's bind between Fiona, who reinforces Ricardo's upscale background and down-to-earth Gabi, with proud ties to her culture. However, De La Vega overdoes one aspect of Ricardo's persona so that when a big reveal comes near the play's end it is hard to believe that Gabi is in the least surprised. At the performance I attended, Gabrielle Dominique ably filled in for Shá Cage as Miss Chan, giving Northside Prep's Global Perspectives teacher a style that I would describe as fierce love.

Yu Shibagaki's functional set incorporates a full brick wall plastered with street murals that depict images from Mexican-American culture, a common site throughout Pilsen. Paul Whitaker's well-modulated lighting conveys the emotional heat of a scene, and combines with Victor Zupanc's sound to create a couple of powerfully conceived fantasy scenes. Trevor Bowen's costumes reflect each character's place in the social order, with Fiona's garb identifying her as a Talbots shopper in training.

The story told in I Come from Arizona is lived out by many kids in our schools, either as the child whose family's status is on shaky ground, or in having classmates who suddenly depart without being able to say where they are going. Even so, it can be difficult for younger kids, and Children's Theatre Company identifies I Come from Arizona as best enjoyed by children age 8 and above. As noted above, two scenes convey fears running through Gabi's mind as fantasies that could frighten younger children. For those of age, however, I Come from Arizona offers a bracing opportunity to raise discussions of issues facing our society from the perspective of how they impact on kids and families. It may challenge some theatergoers' thoughts on the subject, which is surely one of the key roles theater should play in our community life. For those who know Gabi's story through their own experience, I Come from Arizona is a powerful affirmation of struggle and hope. It is an excellent play, blending difficult social, political, and familial realities into a story told with generosity and heart.

I Come from Arizona, through November 25, 2018, at Children's Theatre Company, 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $15.00 - $64.00. Discounts for seniors (age 62+), students, children and military adults. Ten percent discount for purchase of six or more tickets. For tickets call 612-874-0400 or go to Best enjoyed by ages 8 and up.

Playwright: Carlos Murillo, adapted from his play Augusta and Noble; Director: Lisa Portes; Scenic Design: Yu Shibagaki; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design: Paul Whitaker; Composer and Sound Design: Victor Zupanc; Dramaturg: Miriam Weisfeld; Dialect Coach: Cynthia DeCure; Stage Managers: Stacy McIntosh and Jenny R. Friend; Assistant Directors: Coletrane T. Johnson; Assistant Stage Manager: Chandler Jordan Hull; Assistant Lighting Designer: Alex Clark.

Cast: Shá Cage (Ms. Chan, Crossing Guard), Ananda C√≥rdova Stuart (student), Antonio De La Vega (Ricardo), Enzo La Hoz Calassara (student), Luca La Hoz Calassara (Jesús), Sara Magnuson (student), Nora Montañez (Dolores, Yadira), Ayssette Muñoz (Gabi), Madison Neal (Fiona), Ricardo Vázquez (Reymundo/ Ragged Looking Man/Ice Man).