Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Jimmy, who turns thirteen in the course of the show, contends with the following issues: 1) people in his neighborhood are being been snatched off the street in the dead of night, with the police doing next to nothing about it; 2) Jimmy possesses a super power but is obliged to keep that power under wraps; 3) Jimmy, his mother, and his grandmother (called Abuela by the entire neighborhood) are undocumented; 4) a toxic waste and environmental injustice twenty years ago is stirring up new trouble; 5) Jimmy barely sees his mother, who works fourteen-hour days, noting that those who refuse to work the long hours lose their jobs; 5) he is shunned as an outsider and a freak by the other kids at school; and 6) a pair of runaway kids need Jimmy's help. Plus, his real dream is to play baseball, but his mother won't let him go to practice for fear of immigration agents. That's a lot for one adolescent boy, and a lot for one ninety-minute play.
Jimmy is a compelling and likeable character, especially as played with pint-sized panache by Audrey Mojicait wasn't until I reviewed the program following the play that I realized this tween-age boy is played by a girl. There isn't a false note in Mojica's performance, who portrays Jimmy as a great kid, one any parent (or abuela) would be proud of, but with the understandable frustration and pent-up anger his situation warrants.
After a prelude that depicts the nighttime snatching of an innocent, staged so that the audience is left in the dark as to the culprit, the play opens with a friend of the de las Rosas family, Juani, motor-mouthing the ups and downs of her life and of the community. Juani serves the function of setting up each scene for the audience, an ad hoc guide to the neighborhood, and is the play's primary provider of comic relief. She is a transgender character, but I only know this from reading background material about the play onlinewhich I take as a sign of the knowing hand Gamboa (who identifies as queer) had in creating the character, and Aspen Schucker's power-driven performance in the role.
Soon enough we meet even-keeled Abuela wheeling out the cart from which she sells snow cones, nuts, and Mexican corn; Jose Salas, a neighborhood mechanic with a bush of long frizzy hair, who is Juani's prime suspect regarding the disappearances; the runaways, Ayana and her eleven-year-old brother Eddie who, rather than admit to being homeless, call themselves pirates; and Don Manuel, the kindly proprietor of the Happy Corner Market. Juani points out that Don Manuel's bodega is so popular even the white hipsters shop there. When Abuela asks what is a hipster, Juani explains that they're white people who vacation in poor neighborhoods"It's like National Geographic, and we're the animals."
This is the kind of sly humor Gamboa inserts throughout the play that is most likely lost on the large number of youths in the Steppingstone's audience, but tickles the adults in the room. There is much to appeal to the younger audience members, especially fight scenes, staged with super-hero gusto, and the revelations of the character's super powers. For Jimmy, that power is the ability to move objects, including people, with his thoughts. Then it turns out that his new friends Ayana and Eddie also have super powers (I know, what're the odds?) and they team up to solve the mystery of the disappearances plaguing the neighborhood and bring the evil-doers to justice. Along the way, they learn about the toxic waste dump's role in causing past tragedy and current mayhem, which explains why the program lists all of the ensemble members as also playing mutant chihuahuas.
The story is lively and fun, handled with affection and a tongue-in-cheek sensibility by director Alex Barreto Hathaway. He draws out effective performances from the actors, most of whom are middle school or high school students, that reveal the humanity of the characters. Some dialogue is in rapidly spoken Spanish, which adds to a sense of authenticity. Between cognate words, follow-up comments in English, and the facial and body language of the actors, the gist and flow of those conversations is easy to follow.
In addition to Mojica and Schucker, praised above, Rafael Moraga is both menacing and poignant as the loner Jose Salas; Al Clemente Saks pulls off the role of a genteel pillar of the neighborhood with a surprise up his sleeve as Don Manuel; Daija Scott is convincing as the prideful runaway Ayana; and Avery Allen is affecting as Eddie, revealing the unhappiness of being on the run, but drawing courage when needed to fight the evil infesting the community. Kianna Saunders conveys the fatigue and frustration of a single mom forced to give up time with her child in order to earn enough to support him.
For all its energy and goodwill, the big weakness on stage is that the play feels overly ambitious. The Real Life Adventures of Jimmy Rosas had workshop productions at Free Street Theater, Gamboa's home base in Chicago, in 2015 and 2018. Steppingstone's production marks the play's official world premiere. It may be that continued development would help to streamline, clarify, and make the presentation more feasible for the many wonderful youth theaters like Steppingstone, who strive, with modest means, to present topical plays that reflect the lives of the kids in their communities.
The many scene changes require swift movement of mobile screens, which sometimes seems chaotic. The show makes frequent use of projected images as well as back-lit puppets and pantomime, some of which land really well, others are hard to make sense of. Trevor Muller-Hegel's minimal set design, mostly of mobile screens, does little to convey the feeling of Pilsen or to differentiate the play's variety of locations. Lighting designer Tom Mays and sound designer Hector Roberts put a lot of effort into all of the effects, creating work that would likely be a lot more dazzling with higher level infrastructure to support it.
Much more successful are puppetmaster Liz Howls' fantastic mutant chihuahua heads, worn by the ensemble while they do the bidding of their demented master. Stacey Palmer has designed costumes that are totally suitable for these characters, while John Torgerson's incidental music provides the themes one expects to introduce heroic actions and dastardly deeds.
The fight scenes are amusingly staged to conjure up super hero movies and comic books, but there is never a clear sense that the losers have really been defeated; rather the narrative seems to seize a moment when the good guys have the advantage and declare, arbitrarily, the brawl there. That is not to cast aspersions on the staging of those scenesfar from it,, Steppingstone has brought in the dean of local fight choreographers, Annie Enneking, who guides the cast of mainly young actors to enact the staged violence very well, and safely. And to be sure, the youthful audience members lapped it all up.
In spite of some weak spots in its technical execution, and perhaps too many tangents for one play to do justice to, The Real Life Adventures of Jimmy de las Rosas is a fresh, highly original play for youth. It offers entertainment, with both action and comedy, while touching on fears and concerns that are very real in the lives of many of those youth, as well as the adults who accompany them, and can foster understanding among those whose lives are lived far from the inner city. Steppingstone serves the community well by bringing this play to its stage and by continuing to offer young, aspiring actors the opportunity to develop their craft.
The Real Life Adventures of Jimmy de las Rosas runs through February 23, 2020, at the Steppingstone Theatre for Youth Development, 55 Victoria Street N., Saint Paul MN. Tickets: Adults - $16.00. Recommended for children age 10 and up. For tickets and information, please visit www.steppingstonetheatre.org or call 651-225-9265
Playwright: Ricardo Gamboa; Director: Alex Barreto Hathaway; Set Design and Technical Director: Trevor Muller-Hegel; Costume Design: Stacy Palmer; Lighting Design: Tom Mays; Sound Design: Hector Roberts; Props Master: Brooke Nelson; Puppet Master: Liz Howl; Fight Choreography: Annie Enneking; Dialect Coach: Foster Johns; Assistant Dialect Coach: Benjamin Slye; Composer: John Torgerson; Stage Manager: Dylan Nicole Martin; Production Manager and Assistant Director: Kivan Kirk; Student Assistant Director: Trista Chiaokhiao.
Cast: Avery Allen (Eddie), Audrey Mojica (Jimmy de las Rosas), Rafael Moraga (Jose Salas), Marguerite Mountain (Woman), Myruem Mwassa (Officer), Irene Padilla-Carson (Abuela), Sophie Prock (Officer), Al Clemente Saks (Don Manuel), Kianna Saunders (Lety de las Rosas), Aspen Schucker (Juani), Daija Scott (Ayana). Ensemble: Jaeden Allen, Aidan Chiaokhiao, Sara Christians, Marguerite Mountain, Dakari Opoka, Max Perdu, Sinead Quinn.