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Theatre in Review: De Novo (Houses on the Moon Theater Company/Next Door at NYTW)

Emily Joy Weiner, Zuleyma Guevara, Camilo Almonacid Photo: Russ Rowland

The documentary play De Novo is really a collection of scenes from a tragedy, a ripped-from-the-headlines account of a young man caught in the vast, hulking, indifferent machinery of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Working from immigration court transcripts, interviews conducted in Colorado and Los Angeles, letters, email, and other documents, the playwright, Jeffrey Solomon, details the story of Edgar Chocoy-Guzman, who was treated with flagrant, almost criminal, indifference by the US Government. Although his situation, as presented, is very different from that of the DACA Dreamers, watching De Novo it's impossible not to think of those young men and women who are being used as pawns in a political game.

The first, and possibly most fundamental, rupture in Edgar's life comes almost immediately after his birth in Guatemala in 1987, when his mother, Margarita, decides to leave him behind with her parents while she pursues work in the US. "In reality," she says, "over there in Guatemala, if you buy for one child, the other goes hungry. So I said to myself, It's better if I leave. There's opportunity over there. So I came to the United States. But I would always send money for his food. I would send him clothes. Too bad I don't have the video, because once I sent Edgar and his brother a ring, a bracelet, a chain. I would pay for it in installments." The script of De Novo is filled with such simple, heartbreaking statements.

By the age of ten, Edgar, neglected by his grandparents, is taken up by a street gang whose members are in their late teens. When questioned at a hearing about why he joined up, he replies, "Because I hardly had any affection with my family. I thought they were the only family I had." He takes part in garden-variety thefts, but is horrified by the violence that occurs when one gang goes after another. Falling in with a better crowd of kids, he has a revelation of sorts -- and, says Kimberly, the lawyer assigned to his case, "That opened up a whole world he had never seen. Like, here's a mother and here's a father involved in a kid's life and, you know, they come home and they ask them how their day was, or they make them food, or they do the kind of things that parents do for kids that he never had." Written as an indictment of US policy, De Novo also functions as a stark reminder of how children can be starved by a lack of love and basic adult support.

Edgar cuts his ties with the gang, but is later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, so troubled is he by moments of panic and dreams of being beaten up. A "green light," or kill order, is put out on him, and, fleeing a thug with a gun, he hides out in his aunt's house. Margarita puts herself in hock to hire a "coyote" to smuggle him to the US, but their relationship is nonexistent and he can't adapt to his new surroundings. (He also has trouble with his siblings, the existence of whom isn't well explained. Are they stepsiblings? The script never says. We also hear about a brother in Guatemala, but never learn anything about him.) Margarita lives in a gang-infested neighborhood and, afraid and alienated, Edgar is soon in trouble, dealing cocaine and carrying a gun. One time, Margarita is summoned to her local police precinct, where a cop asks her, "Is this trash your son?"

During a couple of years spent in prison, Edgar dreams of turning his life around, even as he shows evidence of clinical depression and anxiety. And, of course, the hearing that has been threaded through the play's action is about his possible deportation. Kimberly argues that if Edgar is forced to return to Guatemala, gang members will be lying in wait for him. Even as we see the boy's desperation, it's difficult to see a way forward for him wherever he is, so deprived has he been of the affection and counseling that could have made a difference. He has lived through all these horrors, and is only seventeen.

Under Solomon's direction, this true tale of our times is given an unsensational presentation that, at first, seems a little dry but gradually gains force as Edgar progresses through the stages of his personal hell. The four-person cast underplays skillfully, aware that the facts of the story provide all the drama that is needed. Camilo Almonacid is strong in a number of roles, especially as Byron Vasquez, a journalist who offers a brief history of Guatemalan gang culture filled with blood-freezing details. Zuleyma Guevara offers sharply different characterizations as the loving, yet helpless, Margarita and the infuriatingly smug and detached judge who tries Edgar's case. As Kimberly, Emily Joy Weiner makes clear how her attention to Edgar's welfare is the only lifeline he has. Manny UreƱa captures Edgar's passivity and fundamental innocence, qualities that, time and again, put him in harm's way.

Staged in the long narrow space now known as NYTW Next Door, the playing area is dominated by piles of file boxes placed there by the set designer Lawrence E. Moten III, in juxtaposition to the projection screen, at stage left, that features Donna Decesare's gritty, powerful black-and-white images of gang life. (By putting the projections off to the side, they make a strong impact without stealing focus from the actors.) Christina Watanabe's lighting reshapes the space as needed; she also creates a chilling green beam that is the realization of Edgar's worst fears.

Watching De Novo is a very sad experience; be prepared for it to haunt you for days after you've seen it. It is a necessary corrective to the nonsense about immigration being spouted nightly on our television screens and other devices. They are not naturally criminals and we are not a safe harbor. We are all in this together and, until we understand that, too many beautiful young people will be destroyed. -- David Barbour

(8 December 2017)

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