Rarely does a stage production so powerfully represent recent political events like Matthew Paul Olmos and director Meiyin Wang’s so go the ghosts of méxico, part one. To bring a subject as violent, politically controversial and unresolved as the Mexican drug wars to the stage is a feat that requires an incredible theater, a thought-provoking and moving play, an extremely talented cast and a good amount of nerve. One cannot expect less from the world-renowned, experimental La MaMa, E.T.C. and this play does not disappoint.
Selected by American Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Sam Shepard as the inaugural play of the first-ever Ellen Steward Award — named after the famed founder and director of La MaMa— Olmos’s so go the ghosts of méxico, part one is inspired by the life of Marisol Valles Garcia. Considered the “Bravest Woman in Mexico” by several news media both in Mexico and the United States, the twenty-something year old Garcia stepped up to fill the place of a decapitated chief-of-police in the northern town of Praxadis, Mexico only to be run out of the country by drug cartels who threatened her life.
The small stage at La MaMa is littered with what look like electronic statues; old speakers are piled on top of one another to form a hodge-podge wall downstage, while clear plastic sheets hang behind, looking almost like an entrance to a meat freezer. Large microphones and broken surveillance cameras hang from the ceiling while large, white chalk dots line the black brick walls. The scene is nothing less than bleak.
The extremely talented Laura Butler Rivera plays young Mari, who has just inherited the title of the dead police chief. The audience first sees her in a projection onto the plastic sheets beyond the speaker wall. She is having sex in a car with her husband (the fantastic Bernardo Cubria). This intimate scene is disjointed and frightening. You can hear their voices but the plastic curtain blurs their faces. It is here (in a clunker in a car lot) that Mari discovers the radio that changes everything, the magic radio that doesn’t have to be plugged into anything to play la musica that brings ghosts back to life.
To describe Olmos’s play solely in terms of drug politics and violence would be missing half the point. The magical realism that prevails throughout draws on Garcia Marquez-esque notions of the grotesque and Allende’s feminist portrayals of traditional Latina womanhood. Mari struggles with her goal to keep the town’s children from joining the cartels, her role as a woman to her husband, and as a mother to her unborn child, all the while feedback crackles from the omnipresent radio.
Luis Moreno is spectacular as the dead police chief who comes back to life at the call of Mari’s radio. Moreno booms and looms above the living, with a gash across his neck and the strength to lift a man three feet in the air from his shirt collar. He is a Mexican Virgil to Mari’s Dante, guiding her through the killing—“they don’t know my killing from their killing, it was all just killing.”
José Joaquín Pérez is the man being lifted, El Morete the narco traficante. He is a caricature, his snakeskin boots and belt, tight jeans, tucked-in plaid shirt and large black mustache calling on images of Mexican machismo. Although these two characters represent frightening images in a war-torn country, their roles are both to instigate fear and anger, while providing the much needed comedic relief to this would-be painfully disturbing play.
Peter O’Connor plays Guero, the “handsome white man” whose “job” it is to embarrass El Morete. Guero comes to Mexico to investigate the “noise” that Mari is making with her radio, only to be attacked as one of the gringos causing the problem, funding the cartels, funding the drug wars. Olmos challenges his mostly American audience, in the character of Guero, to face the political realities of the drug wars and to question who is to blame for the killing. At the same time, the United States is posited as the place where Mari can go to be more powerful; she is encouraged to “leave the Mexico of ghosts to go to the U.S. of fame,” a country with more noise than Mari’s.
Whichever your political opinions, so go the ghosts of méxico, part one is an incredibly moving play that successfully brings the fear, loss and tragedy that has happened so far away from New York City quite literally to the main stage.