EDINBURG, September 30 - Want to take a bite out of crime? Want to do your part to defeat some monsters?
Want to confront the narco-traficantes, members of drug cartels who kill in Mexico and enslave addicts in the U.S.?
Want to be that daring in the comfort of a cool auditorium?
Then, come this week to the University of Texas—Pan American (UTPA). Come see a disturbing, original work of art by the Department of Communication—“Crawling with Monsters.” This is the premier performance for South Texas. The show has already been taken on the road to Chicago, New Orleans, New York, and to the Houston Fringe Festival, where it placed “Best in Show.” The prestigious Public Theatre in New York City has sought the script. The work is based on interviews, emulating Moises Kaufman or Ana Deavere Smith (a la the Laramie Project).
The reality—still in metamorphosis--began when UTPA students were rehearsing a children’s play, El Lente Maravilloso, by Emilio Carballido. In it, amoebas were the “monsters,” attacking and devouring children with diseases. Our students wanted to share the power of theatre by performing in Reynosa, Mexico.
In mid-rehearsal, as dramatized in this play, the troupe was told by the State of Texas they could not travel to Mexico. The U.S. Consulate was also closed, in reaction to the increasing violence. The actors were devastated. However, brave and artistic souls prevailed. The play morphed into this docu-drama. The monsters became real. In the streets and even in the schools, cartels taunted the populace, escalating to armed violence.
Would you satirize the creepy, crawly (in)human monsters of today’s drug violence? Our students did. You will admire their bravery and the creativity of our professors and directors. Go twice—once for the Spanish version (Saturday, Oct, 6, 2:00 p.m.) and to any of the English performances, Tuesday, Oct. 2 through Sunday, Oct. 7 (7:30 p.m., Jeffers Theatre in the Round, Communications Building, UTPA).
The Spanish experience is especially powerful. Dialogue is not mixed, although there is some slang. You don’t think your Spanish is sufficient? Just try. It will be good for you. It will give you a profound baptism into the cultural ambiente. The small entrance fee ($8; free for students) will be your way of supporting the art of drama, and a way to acknowledge the ambitions of our talented bi-lingual, bi-cultural youth.
The experimental work, written at UTPA, overwhelms the senses. It utilizes dialogue, printed word, film, live Mariachi music, and imaginative costuming. Reports highlighted in the play of breaking news regarding more atrocities of cartel violence help provide an up-to-the-minute context. The dramatic offering of fear inside the theatre parallels the fears outside, in the real world. Some parents, afraid for their children, urged them to drop out. Most bravely remained.
The troupe “straightforwardly conveys the horror of living in a criminal war zone” (David Sheward, Backstage, Aug. 19, 2011). “Monsters,” as an innovative example of “self-referential” or “devised” theatre, is one of the first in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Usually one must go to New York, or even Edinburgh, Scotland, to see avant-guard “applied drama.” Lucky theatre goers will receive that stimulating artistic offering plus a strong, contemporary story. That narrative features our entire border family—Mexican, Mexican American, and Anglo American.
Your attendance will encourage the students in this proud moment. Art can provide, if not solutions to the horrendous problem, at least a context. This semi-documentary, based partly on film and interviews in Reynosa, is our neighbors’ story. It is our story too, scarcely told before, certainly not in this way.
Many hands have contributed. The community has been involved. An anonymous donor provided a ten thousand dollar grant. UTPA Mariachis, directed by Francisco Loera, participate. The University, through its Dean of Fine Arts, Dr. Dahlia Guerra, provided funds. The Henry W. and Margaret H. Hauser Endowed Chair helped make the Houston trip possible. Felicidades to those who recognize the merits of this noble adventure.
Positive national publicity, through books, journals and conferences, continues. Reviews are ecstatic: “Requests to perform nationally and internationally pour in,” said Gail Fagen with the New York International Fringe Festival. That festival is the equivalent of Sundance. UTPA won their “Overall Excellence” award. Most critics excitedly see such efforts as “theatre effecting change” (Joseph Furnari, Inciteinsight).
I have written before in the Guardian on cartels. But this review, for me, is a unique opportunity to place shocking “facts” in the context of a compelling allegory of artistic drama. “Monsters” is graphic but perhaps still cannot depict the enormity of the phenomenon (60,000 dead in the last five years). Caution: there are a few moments of levity, but, as the actor/stage manager says, “there is nothing funny about monsters.”
Nor does this play suggest solutions. It does, however, provoke intellectual curiosity. It registers respectful emotional impact. One empathizes with real people interviewed and featured—especially the children. Young innocents have been killed. The survivors speak to us—almost in monotone litany--of their fear, their daily routine disrupted. Other young children have been impressed into the ranks of cartels, lured by promises of quick cash or by harm threatened to their families. Can nothing be done?
Real solutions are political. This past week, the President of Guatemala, Otto Pérez Molina, at the United Nations, urged the legalization of cocaine and marijuana. Many intellectuals, liberal and conservative alike, agree. Only by taking out the profits and by stopping the flow of guns to Mexico can the problem be resolved.
Meanwhile, the topic presented by the play, while difficult to bear, instructs us with the immediacy of its story. We are related to the victims. We are connected—by geography and blood. The student actors, many who live in the Reynosa, shall remain anonymous. But, they are our own children, threatened by monsters.
The artistic challenge these thespians accept matches the valuable, risky service they perform. We learn from them. The Mexican children they channel are confused—as we often are--by politicians on both sides. Some say “don’t worry; “no pasa nada.” Violence has become the daily norm, familiar and (mas o menos) acceptable and puzzling. Indeed, the violence in Mexico, compared with this week’s Feria Internacional in Reynosa, featuring stars of the Bolshoi (and the normal border commerce and crossings) result in an incongruous comparison. So, what is the real reality?
In contrast, others (inside and outside the play) say: “it’s a war zone; send more troops.” Whichever version politicians tout (too much government, too little), they often do so for their own partisan advantage (Governor Perry for President, anyone?). One thing is sure: the “monsters” are not the cartels alone. Some erstwhile political leaders—through sins of commission or omission—do monstrous harm with their self-serving actions or inactions.
Meanwhile, we are left to our own responses and decisions. One such decision would be to see this play—and, if adventurous enough, attend the ballet clásico or ballet folklórico in Reynosa this week. Be bold. Art will help sustain you.
Dr. Gary Mounce is a professor of politics at the University of Texas-Pan American. He is a regular guest contributor to the Guardian, often with columns about Latin America.