How did Juarez, a Mexican border town said to be the birthplace of the burrito and the margarita, become labeled the Murder Capital of the World, specializing in violence against young women?
That’s the main question that the New York based company Theater Mitu, led by Juarez-born artistic director Ruben Polendo, sets out to answer in “Juarez: A Documentary Mythology,” an ambitious work of theater that is playing at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater through October 5th as part of the 2014 Theatre: Village Festival.
Over several years, Mitu company members conducted research and interviewed hundreds of residents of Juarez and its sister city right on the other side of the Rio Grande, El Paso, Texas, which calls itself the safest city in America.
The six performers on stage repeat some of what dozens of those residents said, each accompanied by a title on a video monitor that identifies the speaker only by occupation and age (not by name.)
On the screen: “Interview: Psychotherapist. Age 50. Juárez.” Performer: “…Juárez once was pretty, an extremely beautiful city surrounded by cotton fields.”
On the screen: “Interview: Hip Hop Artist. Age 19. Juárez.” Performer: “I know that Juárez is not the best city for women because of femicides, …But we don’t seek pity. We want this problem to get fixed.”
On the screen: “Interview: Juárez Citizen. Age 43.” Performer tells the harrowing story of a carjacking.
Artists, journalists, historians, “activists,” a waiter, the mayor of El Paso, a philosopher are among those enlisted as witnesses and commentators and experts. They also frequently serve as a kind of conscience for the members of Theater Mitu:
“Writer. Age Late 50’s. Juárez: I don’t want you to portray my city as more beautiful than it really is, or more horrific than it has actually become.”
Woven in-between the comments, company members read facts from cue cards. (e.g. “In 2009, the murder rate in Juárez was the highest reported in the world outside of active war zones. There was a mass exodus of those who could afford to leave. There were over 116,000 abandoned homes. One in four houses were vacant….”)
We learn the theater company’s analysis of the city’s decline: It began with the North American Free Trade Agreement two decades ago, which aimed to encourage industry by eliminating tariffs and other trade barriers. American corporations set up factories (called maquiladoras) in Juarez that employed 200,000 people at very low wages – “an average of five dollars a day.” Most of these jobs went to women, which, one historian says, “essentially destroyed the Mexican nuclear family.” People throughout the rest of Mexico moved to Juarez in hopes of getting one of those jobs – but there weren’t enough to go around. At the same time, “illegal drug consumption in the US increases as drug trade in Colombia breaks down,” giving rise to Mexican drug cartels, who turn Juarez into “a major distribution hub for drugs.” They jockey with one another for dominance, and subsidize their operations through extortion and kidnapping.
This is a fascinating and depressing analysis, one that we must accept on faith. When “Activist. Age 37” discourses on the significance of what has happened in Juarez — “This border is emblematic of what the rest of the world is going to look like in the next 20 years, not just economically, but socially as well. I mean that’s an undeniable truth” – my reaction was: Who says? Where’s the evidence?
Still, the information we glean about Juarez and its residents is what makes this piece worthwhile. That is not, though, the company’s sole aim; they are trying to say something more — about theater, about the nature of narrative (hence the subtitle “A Documentary Mythology.”) It is in their approach to the theatrical aspects of documentary theater that I see “Juarez” suffering in comparison to the work of such documentary theater companies as The Civilians and Ping Chong with his long-running Undesirable Elements series.
“Juarez” is partly undermined by a kind of self-consciousness that comes from these artists wanting to be both boldly theatrical and respectful of their subject. A long note in the program tries to explain why it would have been a “disservice” to “attempt to replicate or show what this landscape or its citizens ‘look like.’” Instead their goal is “to theatricalize what we witnessed; to convey in a theatrical grammar what this place feels like.” (Italics in the original.)
This seems an honorable if not crystal-clear aspiration, but the way this feeling manifests itself is in all sorts of noodling on stage that serve mostly as distractions. Some of the witnesses sing their statements. Two of the cast members perform a kind of interpretive dance in black garb that reminded me of the old Jules Feiffer cartoons. There is liberal use of a blue fluorescent light, and screens, and projections, and a variety of arty sound and lighting effects.
The only character we get to know more as a human being than a stater of fact, story or opinion is Ruben Polendo’s father, whom we see both in the beginning and the end of “Juarez” in home movies. Polendo himself is only a voiceover. These vivid scenes — of his sister’s coronation of the queen of the Juarez Lion’s Club; of his father playing the piano — suggest what a powerful independent documentary film this material could make, the kind that melds the personal and the political. Polendo, recently appointed head of the theater department at NYU-Abu Dhabi, has more to say about the city he left more than a quarter of a century ago, where his father still lives, and still has pride and hope.
Juarez: A Documentary Mythology
At Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (224 Waverly Place)
Conceived and created by Theater Mitu
Directed by Ruben Polendo
Lead Projection design by Adam Cochran and Justin Nestor, lead sound design by Alex Hawthron, composer and musical director Adam Cochran
Cast: Kayla Asbell, Denis Butkus, Ines Garcia, Michael Littig, Justin Nestor, Alejandro Rodriguez
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission
Tickets: $25 General Admission, $5 Students