Clinically directed by Chay Yew and written by MacArthur Genius Award-winning playwright Luis Alfaro, “MOJADA” (partly inspired by the Greek tragedy of Medea by Euripides) is a window into the sacrifices immigrants make coming into the United States. We follow Medea (played by a moving Sabina Zúñiga Varela), a Mexican mother who attempts to overcome every hurdle her way to give her son Acan (Benjamin Luis McCracken) a better life than the one they shared in Mexico.
Like the play clearly illustrates, moving to an unfamiliar and different country is always a new beginning, but also a signifier of an end, a different mentality of doing things, of forgetting the past and old to make way for the new. Change can be driven by you, or forced unto you. There are consequences when you resist change. And you have to make a decision: stay true to your old values or adopt the ones from your new home, even though they contradict everything you stand for.
According to the legend, the princess Medea of Colchis falls in love with Jason of Argonauts. She helps him retrieve the Golden Fleece by using her powers of sorcery. Medea immigrates to Corinth with Jason and gives birth to two sons. After some time, Jason decides to abandon her and plans to marry someone more prominent, the daughter of Creon, the king of Corinth. She is to be exiled but begs to remain in Corinth for at least a day, which she uses to plot her revenge by killing her own sons and Jason’s new bride.
At the surface, “Medea” (as both a character and a play) is about a sorceress who falls in love and later betrayed by her beloved Jason, whom later experiences the powerful revenge bestowed upon him by his former wife. At its root, the story is a metaphor for the old (Medea) vs. the modern (Jason), the patriarchy vs. women, disgrace vs. honor.
Knowing the backstory of Medea, it seems like an odd text to draw inspiration from for a modern immigration story, but it fits to the T.
Note: Spoilers ahead.
Alfaro’s “MOJADA” is set in modern day Corona, Queens. It’s no coincidence that the story takes place in a neighborhood adjacent to Jackson Heights, one of the most diverse places in the United States, and a largely brown immigrant community. Assembled by Arnulfo Maldonado, the scenic design is a vivid and realistic representation of a working-class neighborhood without seeming disingenuous.
Opening scene. At center stage we see Medea as she grips a pair of large banana palms, prays, and slaps the palms together, each slap emanates a sound from back home in Mexico: music at a party, a crying baby, a bird in flight, wings flapping. Enters Acan, curious and receptive to what his mother does. She tells him that he can go back home too if he wants. Acan mimics his mother. It’s enchanting, a dream-like trance. A special mention to Mikhail Kiksel, who as head of sound design, really accentuates sound in this play. His fine-tuning brings sophistication to the story. Sound, in the form of wind or crooning or chirping or rain, becomes a character in and of itself—a reminder that there’s nothing like home.
Watching on the sidelines is Tita (the stellar Socorro Santiago), who personifies the caring and sharp-tongued grandmother. Unafraid to voice her opinions, particularly when it comes to living in a foreign country, she always finds a way to show love to Medea and Acan. However, she doesn’t extend the same pleasantries to Jason (Alex Hernandez).
And why should she? She doesn’t trust him, and at the end, she’s proven to have always been in the right.
Here, Alfaro cleverly reverses the tables. The audience is accustomed to having a femme fatale figure be the ultimate cause of a man’s downfall. But not anymore. Virile and hunky Jason, who uses his disarmingly good looks and charm, obtains everything he wants, even if that ambition destroys what he loves most.
The play highlights the patriarch’s dilemma: work for extended hours even if that means being away from home, or spend time with his family at the expense of losing money. He chooses the former and there begins the drama. While wanting to offer his family a more stable life, Jason doesn’t seem to know how to measure his ambition, how to know when he’s gone too far and stopped thinking of others, how his actions affect those who surround him. And then another question comes to mind: does the U.S. corrupt the mind to think it’s all about “obtaining a better future” at the expense of, well, anything and everything?
Without a doubt, the play’s most powerful trait is the depiction of Medea’s trauma. With projected images (headed by Stephan Mazurek) and a sound design to match, the audience is immersed in the journey of crossing the southern border into the U.S. The stress, anxiety, sadness, physical and mental agony—they are all masterfully shown.
What the play does differently here is that we get to see Medea cope with the trauma she lived crossing the border. A horrific event happened when they crossed the border that changed the family’s life forever. Yes, they make it to New York, yes, they rent an apartment in a friendly and social neighborhood, but what happens when the trauma you lived is so painful that you are unable to evaluate your present? How do you heal individual trauma? A collective trauma?
We see the ramifications of trauma. Both Medea and Jason become distant with each other. The affection they’d manifest for one another diminishes bit by bit. Even Acan and Medea spend less time together. She worries that her son will forget about their origin, their native country.
There are times when you think Medea will overcome sadness, especially when she interacts with Luisa (a hysterical Vanessa Aspillaga), the neighborhood’s “churro lady.” Boisterous and entertaining, she offers comedic relief, but she’s more than that. She’s a complex character that has issues of her own. Aspillaga manages to give her an unmatched sensibility: she can go from being a non-stop talker to a ruminating woman like no other.
The play is critical of characters who take advantage of the underprivileged. Pilar (an engrossing Ada Maris), plays Jason’s boss. She schemes her way into the lives of each family member to better convince Jason that the only way he will achieve the American dream for himself and his son Acan is when he moves out of Corona and marries her. Jason doesn’t think twice and betrays Medea.
Pilar achieves her goal in due to the vulnerable and deteriorating relationship between Jason and Medea. But Jason’s own unmeasured ambition is also to blame. He transforms into a soulless man who only cares about tangible and material things as a symbol of status and wealth.
If you know the story of “Medea,” you know the major plot points in “MOJADA.” But that’s not the point. It’s always about the journey. What does the writer create to get you to the final stretch? In “MOJADA,” we witness the creative and inventive mind of playwright Luis Alfaro with a singular voice, calling attention to one of the most pressing issues of our time: the dehumanization of immigrant communities in the US and the trauma they experience.
“MOJADA” has a run at The Public in New York City through August 18th.
Luis Luna is Latino Rebels’ arts writer and associate producer of Latino Rebels Radio. He tweets from @luarmanyc.