By MARK BLANKENSHIP
When you’re watching De Novo, now playing at 59E59, make sure you follow the Spanish. It’s not just a language in the play, but a metaphor for one of America’s most contentious legal systems.
Written by Jeffrey Solomon and the Houses on the Moon Theater Company, De Novo is a documentary piece that uses interviews and court transcripts to tell the real-life story of Edgar Chocoy, a teenager who illegally immigrated to America to flee the street gangs in his native Guatemala. When he got to the States, however, he took part in more gang activity. And then he was pulled into our immigration courts, which sent him back to his native country. And then he got murdered by the very gang he tried to escape.
Chocoy’s story underlines how ethically and morally complex our country’s relationship to immigration can be, and for many audience members, it may deliver revelations about the system. “The immigration court acts in our name, but most of us know very little about it,” says Solomon, who’s also Houses on the Moon’s co-artistic director. “When we were researching the play, we were looking for cases that would make these issues feel personal, and we were looking for cases that were worthy of a second look—if not by the government, then by the public in whose name they were decided.”
Because they’re using actual trial transcripts---not to mention transcripts of interviews that the company conducted with Chocoy’s family, friends, and attorneys---the production must strike a difficult balance. It needs to stay truthful, but it also needs to be theatrically engaging.
That’s where the Spanish comes in. When he’s in immigration court, explaining why he should be allowed to stay in the United States, Edgar (Jose Aranda) speaks Spanish, relying on the character of a translator to communicate with judges and attorneys. Therefore, audience members who don’t speak Spanish will only be able to understand Edgar through the translator’s voice.
“I think it’s important, even if you don’t speak Spanish, to see that in court, he’s an alien, and he’s in an alien court,” says Solomon.
Later in the play, however, when Edgar recites letters he wrote to his mother, he speaks in English. (The letters were originally written in Spanish, but they’ve been translated for the show.) The shift makes an important point about how an immigrant can seem both foreign and familiar at the same time.
The production’s design pushes that idea even further. Throughout the show, we see projections of photographs by Donna DeCesare, who is renowned for documenting both Central America’s gang culture and the teens who try to evade that culture by coming to the United States. Like Edgar Chocoy, many of them of are undocumented, and they often find themselves in American versions of their native gangs.
DeCesare never photographed Chocoy, but for Solomon, that makes her work even more relevant. “It’s really chilling how Edgar’s specific story ties him to a much bigger social phenomenon,” he says. “Donna’s photos really bring you there and make the story real in a very specific way.”
DeCesare is often reluctant to let other artists use her photographs, for fear they’ll try to glamorize or vilify the violence in her work. She says she was drawn to De Novo because it attempts to give a truly balanced vision of Chocoy’s story. “You have to try and reach audiences in all the possible ways you can,” she adds. “We need to care about these kids because they’re our kids and their kids. They’re both.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor
(Photo credit: Emily Joy Weiner, Jose Aranda, and Carlo D’Amore; photo by Alyssa Ringler)