‘America Adjacent’ world premiere explores high cost of American Dream
The entire ensemble of ‘America Adjacent’ / Ed Krieger

LOS ANGELES—In America Adjacent, a new play by Boni B. Alvarez, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera, now in its world premiere production by the Skylight Theatre Company, the playwright asks, “How far would you go to give your child a better future?”

In pursuit of the American Dream, six pregnant Filipina women risk everything. Through an underground agency, their families have paid a hefty sum for their tourist visas to the United States, which they will overstay throughout the course of their pregnancies so as to give their babies U.S. “birthright” citizenship. These are the “anchor babies” that have become the infant footballs in the constant skirmish over immigration, citizenship, nationalism and nativism that plays out in Congress, the media and the courts.

Once they have arrived in the States, the women are hustled away to a one-bedroom one-bath unit in East Hollywood, which the playwright further locates by describing it as “Larchmont Village adjacent.” That is a one block-long commercial street set amongst upscale homes in a largely residential area of L.A. that with its eateries, bookstore, cosmetics and drug stores recalls the Main Street of smaller towns.

News stories have recently featured busts of such waystations for expecting Chinese women in higher-end suburbs of L.A. where their families have bought into somewhat more luxurious facilities. The Filipino version (has the term “Filipinx” come into use yet?) is decidedly lower-status, but these are not necessarily poor women: They clearly have the means to make this journey and investment in U.S. citizenship for their children.

The six women are confined to the apartment, forbidden to leave the premises. The most they have for fresh air is a small patio in the back. The Administrator (Hazel Lozano), known only by her title, holds their passports, wallets and money (“so they’re safe”), threatening them with jail and deportation should they go out in public and arouse suspicion—among a populace that has been trained that if they “see something” they need to “say something”—as to their motives. Occasional sirens and helicopter noises, and unexplained knocks on the front door, serve to confirm their fears. Nevertheless, some of the women are brazen enough to break the rules and go out exploring the city.

Playwright Alvarez examines the promise of U.S. citizenship: “As the child of Filipino immigrants, I have always been fascinated by the American Dream,” he says. “In America Adjacent I wrestle with what the dream actually is, how it is packaged and marketed abroad, and what the reality is for anyone ever achieving it.”

“Is it an American dream or an American nightmare, setting a course for citizenship in today’s divided atmosphere?” adds director Rivera.

Alvarez has another agenda apart from trying to explicate the “anchor baby” phenomenon. “Filipino-Americans constitute the third largest Asian population in the U.S.,” he remarks in a program note, “just behind Chinese-Americans and Indian-Americans, yet Filipino characters are virtually invisible on stages across the country.” His characters all speak with a strong Tagalog accent, and often the Tagalog words that punctuate the dialogue are left untranslated. Perhaps he is aiming to stimulate a newly energized Filipino-American audience for theatre.

The women come from a range of economic class and geographical areas—some from large cities where they are part of the social elite, others from rural areas where Tagalog is not the common language. Psychologically and characterologically they are all quite distinct, too—some diffident, some haughty, some compliant, others defiant, and all, at least minimally, religious.

Each has her own story: One is bearing the child of the scion of a wealthy family, another was impregnated by her uncle, others various boyfriends. Frequent spats break out among them, yet there are touching moments of solidarity and tenderness. Babies are also present, as the women cannot return home immediately: For one thing, they have to wait until the child’s passport arrives.

A single set, designed by Christopher Scott Murrillo, occupies the stage, consisting of a modest living room furnished with four overstuffed recliners functioning as beds. The off-stage bedroom presumably has two more, and also cribs for the infants. The door to the much-used bathroom is rear-stage. Stage right we see the entryway to the kitchen, and stage left the outdoor patio. From there the women can spy on the happy, sexually active neighbors, who in time bring a new baby into their comfortable “Larchmont Village adjacent” lives. The action takes place “now” between January 2 (the Christmas decorations are still up) and Easter and a little beyond.

Alvarez’s play is, of necessity, not a taut drama with a clear storyline, involving, as it does, six disparate women with no other connection except arbitrarily crossing paths in a Los Angeles safe house. It is more of a slice of life that illuminates, without judgment, the predicament they, or their families, have chosen.

The six pregnant women in the all-Filipina cast include Evie Abat, Angela T. Baesa, Toni Katano, Samantha Valdellon, Sandy Velasco, and Arianne Villareal. Their bios reveal impressive careers for these still youthful performers, in TV, film and theatre.

Gary Grossman and Tony Abatemarco are the producers, both long associated with Skylight Thettre, and Filipina-American Giselle Töngi Walters is associate producer. Matt Richter’s lighting design well captured interior and exterior scenes at all times of day, and Austin Quan created the sound design, complete with helicopter noise and crying babies. Mylette Nora did costumes.

In its “Beyond Conversation” series each week after the Sunday matinee, a discussion panel allow audiences to gain deeper insights into the themes of the play. These are hosted by Ms. Töngi Walters. A full list of guest speakers, dates and topics is posted on Skylight’s website.

On Feb. 24 we were treated to an interview, followed by Q&A, with Pulitzer Prize-winning author José Antonio Vargas, writer for the Washington Post and the New York Times, who came to the U.S. from the Philippines as an undocumented 12-year-old and barely missed, by four months, eligibility to apply for DACA. He pointed up the irony of our immigration dilemma, saying, “You have to lose yourself to become someone Americans can’t even be.”

Many other immigrant groups in our history, such as the Irish, the Italians and Germans, came to America “the right way,” so they claim, but they too just boarded boats without papers. They were “right,” Vargas says, only became they came from Europe. “The Western world gets to determine who tells this narrative.”

It’s “a charade,” Vargas says, that he’s not deported—only because of his well-earned social status as a journalist and book author. “I am deportable so I feel free to say anything I want.” One out of seven Koreans in the U.S. is undocumented, Vargas claims, but is there a “national emergency” around them? No. Trump’s focus on the southern border betrays the racist underpinnings of his Wall fixation.

Vargas is currently working with the organization Define American, one of whose functions is to consult with arts creators concerning accurate portrayals of immigrants. From the narrative flowing out of the White House, most Americans would have no clue that some 40 percent of undocumented people in the U.S. arrived by plane. “What happens,” Vargas asks, “when the society you belong to chooses not to see you?”

America Adjacent plays Fri. and Sat. at 8:30 pm, Sun. at 3:00 pm, and Mon. at 8:00 pm, through March 24. Skylight Theatre is located at 1816-1/2 N. Vermont Ave, Los Angeles 90027. For tickets, information and reservations call (213) 761-7061 or (866) 811-4111, with online ticketing here. The run time is 85 minutes (no intermission).


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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