In an absurd world that refuses to treat immigrants as human beings, Victor I. Cazares makes the case in american (tele)visions that it’s time to dream up a world that treats immigrant narratives with dignity.
A failed American Dream has been theatrical fodder for many plays. Usually, a protagonist tirelessly tries to get from Point A, the position of second-class citizen, and never reaches Point B, the white picket fence and all its trappings of financial stability. Cazares rejects this linear narrative in american (tele)visions, the story of an undocumented family who immigrated to Texas and found their dream squandered in a late-stage capitalist hell, which is, in this case, Walmart.
Instead, in this Rubén Polendo-directed production—now at New York Theatre Workshop in a co-production with Theater Mitu—the story is told through the outlandish and weird world in a videogame universe dreamed up by Erica (Bianca “b” Norwood), the family’s youngest child. Erica assumes the titular role of Fernando in the videogame, “Fernando: Hero of Ages Lost,” and in the process confronts her abusive father Octavio (Raúl Castillo), tries to disentangle the homophobia wrapped up in the family’s memory of her dead brother, Alejandro (Clew), and works to save her mother Maria Ximena (Elia Monte-Brown) from eternal sorrow, all at the same time.
The play expands on the Latine legacy of magical realism, blurring the line between what is real and what is otherworldly. Parsing out between the two is a fool’s errand that robs from the experience of being in a world with limitless possibilities. Cazares’s lay-away-land at the back of an eternally open Walmart is akin to Gabriel García Márquez’s fictional hamlet Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Both places are alloys of each writer’s upbringing and their imaginations.
Bretta Gerecke’s scenic and costume design pushes against the characters’ compartmentalization into the same tropes often portrayed of an immigrant community by enabling the videogame to explore the characters’ most fantastical ideas of themselves. Looming in front of the audience are four large, rusted cubes, each a Pandora’s box containing different struggles that the family has faced. One box opens up to show a gleaming display of Barbies on one side and slick toy cars on the other.
To Jeremy (Ryan J. Haddad), Erica’s childhood friend, these Barbies are all goddesses, and he wants to be equally divine. In the videogame, he emerges from the box, no longer just an admirer of princess goddess Barbies, but a peer, Miroslava, the Meteor Fairy. The light glinting off his rhinestoned wand bounces off the glossy plastic of the display boxes and directly onto his hot pink dress. Jeremy’s empowered queer joy is a departure from the immigrant pain that is often the focal point of these narratives. For Cazares, the American Dream is dead, but queer dreams will go fulfilled. Alejandro and his boyfriend Jesse get to defeat homophobic bogeyman, and Erica isn’t asked to wear dresses when she plays as Fernando. Together, they all come of age acknowledging, exploring, and celebrating their unique queerness.
The videogame’s whimsy keeps the audience an arm’s length away from the trauma. Pixelated backdrops and zip-zappy sound effects translate the high stakes of this family’s emotional well-being into the familiar lower stakes of a videogame: the task to complete is clear and win or lose, you can always try again.
However, Theater Mitu’s technology design team, including Kelly Colburn, Alex Hawthorn, and Justin Nestor, refuses to let audience members get too comfortable. A larger-than-life triptych of screens immerses the audience. A camcorder filming onstage simultaneously projects onto the tri-fold that audience members have no choice but to watch. This is where Octavio lays out the very real specifics of his failed American Dream. Seconds later, those same screens are the backdrop of a parody detective show flashing “Crazy Inspector” in gaudy, albeit nostalgic font. If the audience gets to enjoy the treat of “Crazy Inspector,” then they have to eat their voyeuristic veggies first.
A game is supposed to have structure and rules that account for every outcome. Games are not meant to have surprises that fall outside of the bounds of its presupposed rules. Winning or losing a game should be tied to these rules, establishing a rationale that the player can believe in. Otherwise, the game is just as unpredictable as the world it is trying to provide refuge from.
Cazares’ world-building pushes viewers to confront that this story is not really a game at all. When the gems are not enough to save Erica’s mother from 2500 tons of sorrow, as had been previously promised, it’s clear that, like reality, this game will not indulge Erica in trying to undo the pain her family has experienced. Maria Ximena prophetically declares that the wheels of despair don’t go in reverse, and so Erica must go on as well.
It's a clever maneuver, goading the audience to indulge in the comic relief that “Heros of Ages Lost” gives until suddenly all that’s left are the facts: Erica’s mother is still dead, Alejandro is still dead, Jesse is unaccounted for, Jeremy lost touch, and Octavio is emotionally out of the picture.
Cazares’ writing is a fever dream. A word of advice to audience members: give in. Those who do will eventually reemerge into the absurd world that was waiting before this fantastical journey began with the same disappointment in the failed promises made by the American Dream. But you will leave with a deep hope in Erica’s ability to translate her power in her imagined reality over to the one we all live in.