Conjoined Cultures

This play intertwining Mexican Americans and Japanese Americans during World War II is one of Borderlands' best

We know about Mexican and Mexican-American farm workers, and we know about the scandalous internment of American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II. But we rarely see those stories intertwine, as they surely did 60 years ago.

Intertwine they do in an Oliver Mayer play aptly titled Conjunto. The word means "united" or "conjoined," and that's precisely what happens to his characters, though none too easily, in a fine new production at Borderlands Theater.

"Conjunto" is also a style of music popular among the working class of Texas and Northern Mexico; in our area, the accordion-driven music is better known as "norteño." This particular music has no place in Mayer's play--instead, we hear 1940s pop hits, singing cowboy Gene Autry and charro cantor Jorge Negrete--but it's relevant in that it's music of and for people who toil, especially those bent close to the earth.

Such are the characters in Mayer's play. Min is a California farm owner. His parentage is Japanese, but Min considers himself American through and through; he's a businessman, basically, and an individualist who speaks his mind, even when this may not be to his full advantage. This puts him at odds with his mail-order Japanese wife, Shoko, who prefers to stay low while maintaining strict discipline in the fields.

Min's foreman--the best he's ever had, as he well knows--is Genovevo, who dreams of owning a farm himself, although he has nothing of his own to start with. When they go to Los Angeles for fun and relaxation, they meet on the street an androgynous figure named Pichuka. "Pichuka" sounds like "pachuco," and that's what we've got: a tough, young American-born Hispanic rejecting Mexican customs, yet not quite finding an honorable place in the American mainstream.

In early 1942, fearing that a good 120,000 of the nation's Japanese Americans along the West Coast would suddenly turn seditious, government officials had them evicted from their homes and removed to internment camps for the next three years. Min and his drug-addicted brother, Ted (Kennedy Kabasares), are sent off, but first Min disguises Shoko as a Mexican field worker and warns her to stay out of sight, and sells his farm to Genovevo for a dollar. It's a sign of Min's desperation that he thinks Latinos will have it better off in America than he will.

Genovevo isn't quite sure what to make of his sudden good fortune. "My dream's come true," says the newly minted patrón. "What am I supposed to dream of now?"

Dreams usually don't work out as we hope, and that's true of the dream sequences in Mayer's script. Mayer has 15 plays under his belt, so he knows what he's doing; he can write good dialog and create distinctive characters. But the fantasy sequences in Conjunto don't integrate well with the play's overall realism. Good ideas are percolating there, but the use of Autry and Negrete in one sequence seems more didactic than it should, and an important transition from fantasy to reality at the end of the first act is confusing. It's fine to erase the line between dream and waking life, but here, the erasure is more a hurried smudge. Similarly, the play's resolution seems rushed, and it's so loaded with symbolic gestures that it takes a couple of minutes to figure out what happened.

On the other hand, Mayer doesn't reduce his characters to mere symbols. They're complicated and imperfect, unpredictable without being inconsistent. This is no small feat in a play that addresses racism, cultural deracination, assimilation and the birth of America's Mexican guest-worker program, a less-exploitive version of which might be useful today. Issues could easily get in the way of characters, but not here.

Overall, this is one of Borderlands Theater's more impressive productions, starting with the lead actors in the very large cast. Blake Kushi is nicely smug and conflicted, but basically likeable as Min, who wouldn't mind being free of the farm except that under these circumstances, leaving the farm means his complete loss of freedom. Robert Encila is a very sympathetic Genovevo, a man who thinks about the future but inevitably gets caught up in the moment. Celeste Den plays Shoko with an absolute lack of artifice and cliché (except when she's required to, in one dream sequence). Alida Gunn pulls off the challenging, mercurial role of Pichuka with her customary aplomb.

There are a great many components to this production, all of which fit together well: Armando Molina's sensible direction; John Longhofer's outstanding set design, which also includes projected video elements that involve, among other things, images by artist Alfred J. Quiroz; the multifaceted live musical contributions of Ken Koshio; and all the other elements.

It's fitting that everything should fall together so ably in a play called Conjunto, where diverse people unite, sometimes despite themselves, through accident of cultural history as well as through natural affinity.

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