Boy Trouble

Two plays opening next week find adventure--domestic and exotic--swirling around disabled sons

Disabled boys are at the heart of two short-run plays opening in Tucson. In the bilingual comic fable Bocón! a boy's voice flies away when soldiers in his Latin American village threaten his parents. In Afraid to Look Down, playwright and actor Cullen Douglas recounts his first year as the father of a son with Down Syndrome.

Douglas is coming to town for a three-day run under the auspices of Invisible Theatre for performances coinciding with National Down Syndrome Awareness Month. The story begins just before the baby is born; Douglas is nervous and giddy and a little self-centered as a first-time father-to-be. Not until the baby, Gabriel, arrives do Douglas and his wife learn that he has Down Syndrome, and Douglas' emotions become a tangle of dismay, guilt, anger--and love.

As he stands over the crib, he says, "I'm afraid to look down, I won't look up, and it's too hard to look back." But looking back is precisely what Douglas had to do when he started writing this one-man show a year after Gabriel was born.

"In the beginning of the writing process I got to the point where I had to deal with some of the emotions that kept coming up that first year and wouldn't go away," he says. "I said, 'OK, I'm gonna move forward; I need to face those demons and put them into a box, if you will, put them in the proper presepctive.' Every time I do the show I am reaching back to that first year, so in many respects my job as an actor is easier because I don't have to use any special method to imagine, 'What if this were to happen?' I simply have to recall that part of my life, touch on it briefly, and move on to the next scene. It's important to open the door, visit that place, and move on."

Gabriel is eight now, and Douglas and his wife, Rachel, have since had a second son. Douglas admits that initially he felt a little guilty about putting deeply private details about his family onstage for all to see. "But I got over that," he says. "I do this really for two reasons. One is to use my instrument as a vehicle to share a story, and I think the deeper message of all that is that I want everyone to know how I came to the other side of all those emotions and how I am deeply, madly in love with both my sons. Any initial guilt I felt was because I was exposing some of those darker, unpleasant moments my wife and I experienced that first year. But ultimately this is a message of hope and acceptance. I'd like to think the audience walks away being, first of all, entertained, and secondly a little bit more informed or enlightened."

Despite the pain, many moments in the play are quite funny. So, surprisingly, is much of Lisa Loomer's Bocón! The Borderlands Theater production has been traveling through six local schools, and now will receive three days of public performances at the TCC Leo Rich Theatre.

The basic situation isn't so amusing. Miguel, the bocón or loudmouth of the title (played by Alejandro Samaniego), loses his voice when soldiers in his unspecified Latin American village threaten his family. Miguel flees north to freedom, with the reluctant assistance of La Llorona, Mexican folklore's equivalent to the bogyman. The story is told through acting, music and movement.

"There's lots of large spectacle," says director Leigh Ann Santillanes, "which is interesting to try to do on an elementary-school stage."

The show is able to expand significantly on the Leo Rich stage, although much of the spectacle still falls to creative use of lighting and sound.

Santillanes is especially intrigued by Loomer's treatment of La Llorona (played by Alida Wilson-Gunn), the legendary figure who drowned her own children and now prowls around, particularly near riverbanks, with unclear motives.

"In this play, La Llorona has a chance to redeem herself," says Santillanes. "She has a chance to re-mother someone and make up for what happened in the past. Her function is to scare kids, but to scare them indoors, where they'll be safe. And she discovers through her journey with Miguel that her function is greater than just in this Latin-American community; she's needed in places like Rwanda and Bosnia, too."

Still, the play mainly concerns Miguel and aspects of liberty, particularly the freedom to speak out against injustice. And although it has been presented successfully to kids in elementary, middle and high schools, the work, says Santillanes, "is a particularly adult play. It uses complex metaphors to describe life, and it deals with military oppression and the increasing separation between the rich and the poor--things that are in the news right now. In Mexico, 20,000 children like Miguel disappear every year; some are used as mules by drug smugglers, and others become involuntary organ donors.

"Of all the plays I've done at Borderlands, this is the one I'm most enraged about," she says. "But it's productive rage. Through this work I can get out the message that something needs to be done."