We’re told that we’re living at a time of an ‘immigration crisis’. The cries against immigrants aren’t only heard in parts of the UK as we head for Brexit. They can also be heard across continental Europe by rising far-right nationalist parties and in the US where rallies of people feel comfortable in chanting that an elected American congresswoman should ‘go back home’.
This rhetoric is most frequently targeted at undocumented or ‘alien’ migrants who are living and working without obtaining the necessary permissions to do so. But what does sending such immigrants to their place of birth mean in practice? This is the focus of Tegan McLeod’s new play, “Lunatic 19s”, where Gracie (Gabriela Garcia), following a near-fatal car accident, is found in hospital by an immigration enforcement officer, Alec (Devon Anderson) and is consequently deported to Mexico.
The two-person show, directed by Jonathan Martin, is quite uncomfortable to watch at times. In the Finborough pub theatre, the nature of the stage combined with the minimal lighting design believably creates the confines of a van. There’s shouting, blood, violence and spitting. Although there’s humour in parts, it often puts you too on edge to find release in laughter.
Gracie, a Latina migrant worker from Kentucky, suffers relentless bad luck. While driving home after covering an early morning shift, an 18-wheeler truck hits the back of her car and damages her spine. Although she survives, she is left with soaring medical bills and is temporarily bed-ridden with a neck brace that is screwed to her head.
In this fragile state, our immigration enforcement officer Alec, stealthily tracks Gracie down and views this as the opportune time to deport her to Mexico, a place she hardly knows. Why now? She is wanted for arrest in Florida following the accumulation of late fees for a rental car. I wish I could say that her plight ends there, but it doesn’t.
The Deporter and Deportee get to know each other during the long drive to Mexico. Their discussions are initially confrontational but they eventually start to have the kind of breakthrough conversations that feel rare in public discourse. The kind where you start to see beyond the opposing sides of the polarising debate and connect with the individual behind their immigration status.
The play is an interesting examination of authority structures and the burden carried by the agents such as Alec made to deliver immigration policies. When we first meet Alec, he is clinical and detached. ‘Discover, detain and deport. …I put them in the van, bats in a cage and I just drive’. He’s keen to go through the motions in an uncompromising fashion. But as the play progresses, Alec faces this conflict between the demands of his job and his instincts to display empathy.
This play also touches on the ‘them and us’ divide between legal and illegal immigrants. When you look at Alec and Gracie at a basic level, their differences by the end of the play feel wafer thin. They both pay their taxes and have dealt with their fair share of heartbreak and trauma. However, a divide has been perpetuated by a messy and tangled immigration system which makes it harder for most well-meaning people to obtain citizenship. ‘Citizenship more like citizenshit’ Gracie remarks. Despite their similarities, in the eyes of the law, one group are treated as an outsider in society and should be sent back ‘home’.
Gabriela Garcia is mostly known for her musical theatre roles where she’s shone in parts such as Nina in ‘In the Heights’ and most recently as Maria in ‘West Side Story’. Her performance as Gracie marks a clear departure from the comparatively sweet and mostly well-mannered women she’s played before. In terms of her physicality, there’s something quite distressing about her performance. She believably adopts the fragile composure of someone who has had spinal surgery and is chucked in the back of the van. As she experiences bouts of nausea, or flinches as she is made to get up for another toilet break, you can feel the searing pain shoot through her body.
Despite her weak and feeble exterior, Garcia as Gracie is as tough as nails. She remains headstrong when challenged by Alec, giving it back to him in their frequent mud-slinging matches regardless of the compromised position that she’s in. Gracie is a complex individual. She has had to grow quickly following her challenging past; though she is fiercely independent, she is also bruised. It was an unexpected surprise to see Garcia thrive in such a demanding role that appears to be miles apart from anything she’s done before.
Devon Anderson as Alex is a well-suited scene partner often matching Garcia’s energy and spark. He initially starts as an insufferable bureaucratic enforcer. But during the show’s 90 minutes running time, you are convinced of the journey that he goes on to think more critically about how he is complicit in a system which seems to lack human decency.
Tegan McLeod’s new play is provocative and timely. Although it seems to get carried away towards the end with an unanticipated sexual interlude, it digs up some uncomfortable truths about aspects of the American immigration system in a gripping piece of theatre.
Lunatic 19s is playing at the Finborough Theatre and runs until August 3 at the time of writing.