In earlier issues of Opinion8ed2 I reviewed several plays by The Working Theater, which provides works about everyday working people at reasonable prices that most people can afford (Exit Cuckoo and Call Me Waldo). In La Ruta, their latest production, Mexican immigrants risk their lives as human cargo hidden in the back of a tractor-trailer in search of economic opportunity north of the border.
The play is produced as a travelling “road show” that is literally staged in a cargo trailer. The creators break the fourth wall the moment you arrive by ushering you into a makeshift tent that serves as the staging point for the journey that’s about to unfold. The “curtain rises” surreptitiously as you sit on crates and wooden pallets and several of the actors arrive unannounced and begin to talk to each other about their fears of the long, hard journey ahead.
The tough-edged organizer of the smuggling ring soon bursts on the scene barking orders, curses and threats as she herds you into the trailer for the rough journey ahead. There, you’re told to take a “seat” on the cardboard boxes that line the walls. The trailer door slams shut, sealing in the stale air and gloomy darkness. Muffled sounds and vibrations outside can be heard and felt for several long minutes as the truck is being readied. Finally the action begins at the back end of the trailer as the human trafficking straw boss illuminates the scene with a flashlight that becomes a theatrical spot and you are introduced to each of the travelers and their stories of desperation.
The scene then shifts to the front of the truck where the driver and the head of the smuggling ring snack on Twizzlers, argue over what music to play on the rig’s big speaker audio system, and reveal they are hauling drugs as well as immigrants. They casually plot to sell one of the young women as a sex slave for a few extra bucks as if they were discussing the weather. As the play continues the action switches back and forth between the immigrants and their exploiters. Needless to say there is no intermission on this journey and the action concludes abruptly without an opportunity to recognize the actors and the fine job they did; the audience is quietly ushered back to resume our comfortable lives but with a new frame of reference on the question of immigration.
McCarthyism, one of the darkest chapters in recent American history is the subject of the Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Radio Drama Network production of Finks, a new play by Joe Gilford based on the lives of his parents Jack and Madeline Lee Gilford. The Gilfords were active on the stage, screen, radio and television in the forties and fifties and were also social activists who became targets of the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Hundreds of citizens were called to testify and harassed both publicly and privately to “name names.” Families, friends, and co-workers were pitted against each other in the frantic witch hunt. Many stayed true to their progressive principles and refused to cooperate; the stakes were high…often they were jailed, fired from their jobs and blacklisted from opportunities for future work, all under the banner of right-wing definitions of “patriotism” and “loyalty”. But many others who were scared or just interested in preserving their jobs above all else, caved under the pressure and unscrupulous tactics. Finks, i.e., those who named names, ruined the careers and in some cases the lives of their colleagues (one of their friends committed suicide after being blacklisted) by describing progressive actions or tendencies – and in many instances just made stuff up to save their own hide.
While the theme was dark, Gilford was able to convey his parents’ story in an entertaining and uplifting style. His dad’s topical comedy routines in Greenwich Village clubs, mom’s cabaret act, and the song and dance of their good friend Jerome Robbins balanced the macabre HUAC testimony. Finks is a story that needs to be told and re-told so this chapter in history is not forgotten.