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Public Theater’s Mojada Caked in the American Dream

Public Theater’s Mojada Caked in the American Dream

Flying in on palm leaf wings dressed in angelic white, playwright Luís Alfaro (Oedipus El Rey) finds the ceremonial ritual in his leading lady’s desire to make her spiritual way home, even when home is something to run away from and someplace impossible to return to. It’s in the summoning of the traditional Greek Gods of Theater where the wise playwright finds his deeply moving immigrant take on the Greek tragedy, Medea and in his central character’s decent into a spiraling madness. The desperate soul of Mojada resides in the tragedy of the maternal core of Medea, played with earthbound love and naive devotion by Sabina Zúñiga Varela (Culture Clash’s Bordertown Now). The title of this taunt new play refers to a negative slang thrown with hatred at the Mexican immigrants at the heart of this dynamic play, and with the Orange Monster’s horrific racists rants against the four Congresswomen of color still hanging in the twitter atmosphere, the slap stings with a present day force. As directed with a soulful presence by Chay Yew (Rattlestick’s Draw the Circle), the husband’s fantastical dream of riches and security in the United States of America is “plump and full of possibilities“, and even when the clumsiness of a few incidental characters draw us out of the desperation and pain, the trials imposed are deadly and real.

MojadaWritten by Luis Alfaro Directed by Chay Yew
Benjamin Luis McCraken, Alex Hernandez, Sabina Zuniga Varela, Socorro Santiago. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

The timeliness of this tale is heated and powerful, packing a punch that stings. The focus at first is on Tita, a blending of the two Euripides’ caregivers; the Nurse and the Tutor. Played with sarcastic charm by the firecracker actress Socorro Santiago (Broadway’s The Bacchae), this old Mexican woman has been at Medea’s side since she was a young child, and although her roots never feel completely homegrown, she makes care and determination authentic. The heartfelt and touching claim she serves before handing off the narrative focus is that Medea, back in Mexico, was an artist, but here in America, she is literally a sewing machine, bolted down to a Queens apartment doing work for a few measly dollars, too afraid to ask for more or walk beyond the gates. “You can’t let the past be your future“, Medea is told, but the arduous journey from back there to here, with Tita and her son Acan, played by the overly smiling Benjamin Luis McCracken (“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”) close at hand, will forever be etched into her body with traumatic punctured trauma.  She tells the tale of their escape with a solo force in painstakingly intense detail . She describes the journey behind her ruggedly handsome husband, Jason, muscularly played by the charismatic Alex Hernandez (RTC’s Kingdom Come) step by step as they merge forward into the American haze. Her husband has a plan, but he falters under the moneyed weight of the American dream. He follows using his sexualized body in a way that is in direct opposition to her own tragedy, seeing a pathway carved out of the very dirt and betrayal that they had hoped to leave behind. It’s a shockingly hard twist of the machete, his casual betrayal, told to Medea earnestly as if she should understand and agree. But the cut is too deep for her to withstand and she prickles back with a deadly vengeance, in solid Greek tradition, demanding that the hurt be heard and felt by all concerned.

MojadaWritten by Luis Alfaro Directed by Chay Yew
Alex Hernandez, Sabina Zuniga Varela. Photo by Joan Marcus.

It’s rough and fractured, this dangerous hike, but for some reason, it remains somewhat detached in the cold night air of the oppressive desert. The set, by designer Arnulfo Maldonado (LCT’s The Rolling Stone) centers the heart in Queens, but doesn’t find the dirt that symbolically should be caked on the costumes of Haydee Zelideth’s (Pipeline’s Playing Hot) telling design. The lighting by David Weiner (Broadway’s The Price) along with the solid sound design by Mikhail Fiksel (Public’s We’re Only Alive…) and light projection design by Stephan Mazurek (Steppenwolf’s Russian Transport) works the structured machine well, stitching together the pieces into a solid whole while systematically making the journey harrowing. But it feels removed and somewhat awkward in its dramatic staging, never getting a solid hold on my heart. Mojada rips the seams apart slowly in its choppy and sometimes hard to swallow dramatic Greyhound telling, presenting the horror of the ride, but losing the drive somewhere along the way. 

MojadaWritten by Luis Alfaro Directed by Chay Yew
Socorro Santiago, Vanessa Aspillaga. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

The fight and the flavor resides in the side notes of the three shades of minority female arrivals. Luisa, played with punch and fire by the fast talking Vanessa Aspillaga (Public’s As You Like It) lives in the legality of the Puerto Rican Hispanic experience in America. She’s filled to brim with passion and fire, but struggles for stability after the Hurricane ruined her livelihood. She sells churros on the street corner, and has as much to say about the world and its injustices as any full Greek chorus could. It’s a masterclass of invention, both by the playwright and the actress, breathing authentic engagement into the scenario, but the more tense comparison lies with the Cuban immigrant, Pilar, played with power and confidence by Ada Maris (Public’s Bang Bang Blues). Pilar does what men basically do out in that deadly desert in her illegal entry. She takes what she wants, and leaves the carnage out there in the dirt to dry up and blow away. “If you hold on too tight” Medea is told, “you’ll get burned“, but Medea, unfortunately, does just that against the greediness of the ruthless Pilar. In true Greek form after a well placed prick of revenge, the whole familial house comes burning down around them all, leaving few to mourn the loss of those involved.“I prefer my ugly husband” says the wise Luisa, who tries her best to send out the warning flares after hearing through the gossip channels of Jason’s greedy survivalist eyes looking outward for the American prize. The vantage point is as harsh as their journey through the dangerous desert to NYC in search of salvation, making Mojada a well intentioned and focused immigrant story. The family is authentically and forcibly caked in the sweat, violence, and fear of our present day reality. “I can see the land on your skin“, Medea is told, as she chronicles the family of four bravely walking forward into a new unknown, leaving the screams of young girls buried behind. They struggle for breath on this journey towards hope, but find something unexpected waiting for them wrapped up in a mean spirited American dream. Even with the somewhat silly and unnecessary last scene, topped off with a bad grey wig and mustache, Mojada takes a strong stance against this country’s repeatable cruel and heartless attitude towards immigrants in crisis. It finds the complications in the hope and layers a tragedy of Greek proportions all around it. Salvation is left to wither in the cold desert air, next to the dream and an old man who doesn’t have the strength to go any further.

MojadaWritten by Luis Alfaro Directed by Chay Yew
Alex Hernandez, Socorro Santiago Sabina Zuniga Varela in The Public Theater’s MojadaWritten by Luis Alfaro. Directed by Chay Yew. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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Off Broadway

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to

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