Opening on a lone guitarist singing softly in Spanish, Central Works' new play Shadow Crossing probes at the question of legal and illegal immigration like a tongue worrying California's loose tooth. Written by Brian Thorstenson in collaboration with the ensemble, it tells the story of three people -- a gay photographer planning to move to Canada to escape US homophobia, his Minuteman-leaning schoolteacher friend, and a young Mexican looking for work -- who collide in a messy and vital tangle of needs, history, and ideologies. The relationships are played truthfully, the tension is high, and like so many Central Works shows, the ending is satisfyingly ambiguous.
Of the three characters, Rafael the migrant is the most interesting. Emily's prickliness around the immigration question has to be explained through a contrived bit about her mother's history at Ellis Island, and Martin is almost too glib to be real. Jan Zvaifler and John Patrick Moore do their respective best to flesh out their rather simplified characters, but it's Rafael (a strong Michael Navarra) who is both the most likable and has the most to teach. He's written that way, from the plaintive ballad about leaving his home to the helpful tips in the second act for anyone thinking about making an illegal border crossing into el norte (only use a coyote the first time you make the trip, and don't pay more than a thousand dollars; "inscribe your nombre in your underwear so if you die they can find your family and the priest can bury you").
While provocative, it sometimes stumbles. Thorstenson has created a document more than a story, one that gets pretty muddled at the beginning of the second act with the introduction of ghosts. Some of the history referenced may not be familiar, such as the story of the bracero program that ended in the infamous Operation Wetback in 1954, where government agents swept through poor and working-class neighborhoods shaking down anyone "Mexican looking." While Shadow Crossing touches on this history, mostly through the nice big video projections and some rapid-fire dialogue, it's almost too fast to understand.
That said, fascinating questions arise about both what it means to be a citizen -- is it a privilege, a right, or a burden? -- and the importance of our history. At a time where record numbers of Central and South Americans are risking death to escape poverty while the Minuteman Project's Jim Gilchrist claims that the border must be patrolled more tightly because "our Southwestern border is littered with Arabic papers and Islamic prayer rugs," these are questions we can't afford to ignore.
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