Try to put yourself in Speedy Gonzalez’s sombrero (he doesn’t wear shoes). Every day he must cross a fence that separates the “haves” and the “have-nots.” And in that crossing, he has developed multiple identities.
On one side of the fence, he is a hero — a tiny Robin Hood of the Rio Grande. He helps compatriots to their safety, brings music to their fiestas, and steals enough cheese for everybody. On the other side, Speedy is considered a lawless bandit looking to get something for nothing.
This is just the beginning of Below U.S., a new play created by Tikka Sears and Manuel Castro of Memory War Theater.
Using live theater, Indonesian-style shadow puppets, dance, video interviews, and animation by Tess Martin (whose short film "Plain Face" just screened at SIFF), Below U.S. appropriately employs a buffet of artistic expressions to explore and unpack the complications accompanying “hybrid identity.”
Castro, born in Washington, D.C., to a Chilean-American family, moved to Nicaragua with his parents as a child and lived there while the Sandinistas were in power. Sears grew up in both America and Indonesia. Now, the couple lives in the Tashiro Kaplan lofts in Pioneer Square. Castro is also a professional glass blower; Sears works as an instructor and coordinator at the UW.
While Sears and Castro typically work and live in “progressive” communities, they say they still encounter situations in which they have to either defend their ethnicity outright, or prove they are “authentic” members of one or both of their ancestral cultures. Castro says he struggled with being perceived as entirely Latino in America and entirely “gringo” in Latin American countries — a fact that left him feeling closed off from his complete identity.
Inspired by personal experiences, and a fascinating academic study of Latino stereotypes authored by William Nericcio, Sears and Castro decided to create an oral history project that could make this interior border conflict part of a community discussion.
The couple started by conducting filmed interviews with people about hybrid identity issues. They wrote several monologues based on these discussions and memories from their childhoods.
But as the project progressed, the monologues fell away in favor of incorporating more “real time” text. Sears and Castro used an iPhone to record their own conversations during rehearsals, then they turned those into scenes. They decided to use the raw footage from interviews. And more physical theater crept into the mix.
Finally, they fully embraced the irreverent and improvisational spirit of Indonesian puppet theater — a form that absorbs the direct surroundings into the material, makes one laugh in spite of painful subject matter, and directly makes fun of the audience. Of course, Sears and Castro don’t stay hidden behind the puppeteer’s screen for long.
Because even the set in this play has multiple personalities, a row of door-sized frames covered with opaque white paper (or something like it) also acts as a set of shifting dividers. Castro and Sears (the sole performers) weave in and out of them constantly — so that sometimes they are themselves, and sometimes they are only silhouettes. And throughout the performance, video images play randomly across the panels like piano keys.
Below U.S.’s fast-paced collage incorporates almost as many performance styles as ethnicities. Each scene challenges the performers to morph into a totally new form; they go from posturing as Zorro, to playing themselves, to playing each other, to channeling the Electric Company.
The result is a breathless chase of questions that don’t really have answers. But the pursuit is fascinating — and handled with expert embroiderers’ fingers, ripping away at the weave of racist stereotypes one tiny stitch at a time.
If you go: Below U.S., 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (June 3-4); special preview 7:30 p.m. Thursday (June 2), Ethnic Cultural Theater, 3940 Brooklyn Ave. N.E., Seattle. Tickets cost $5-$12 and are available online.
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