A virtuous book doesn't translate to a vital stage production in Just Like Us

For those of us who don't live in the immigrant world and interact with it only rarely and in routinized ways, the realities of immigrant life are hazy. Now and then a news story knifes through the haze: hundreds of workers deported seven years ago after raids at meat-packing plants around the country, including Greeley; desperate Syrians fleeing civil war in their country; migrants from Africa struggling and dying as their boats founder on the perilous journey to Lampedusa, Italy. And the high-pitched, often vicious debate in this country that has led to vigilante patrols and laws attempting to criminalize anyone leaving water bottles on trails to prevent migrant deaths in the searing desert heat.

The characters in Just Like Us face far less extreme circumstances. The play is based on a book written by Helen Thorpe — at the time married to then-Denver mayor John Hickenlooper — that chronicles the lives of four Denver high-school girls. Clara and Elissa are legal residents, Marisela and Yadira are not. They all worry about grades, boys, parties and dances; they love and support each other, and every now and then their differences in status threaten the close bonds they share. All of them know that at any time, a family member or close friend could be deported. Marisela and Yadira are constantly made aware of the legal, financial and educational limits they face; Marisela's encounter with a traffic cop vividly reveals the blinding terror that underlies her ordinary, everyday life.

The anti-immigrant rhetoric of radio talk-show hosts and right-wing politicians forms a constant backdrop, and when an undocumented Mexican working at a restaurant part-owned by Hickenlooper kills a cop, the girls hear it reach a feverish and threatening crescendo.

In this context, a thoughtful, empathetic and layered examination of immigrant life is deeply welcome. The problem is that a virtuous book doesn't necessarily make for a vital stage production. The Denver Center Theatre Company has mounted a lot of books turned into plays over the years, but only one really worked: Kent Haruf's Plainsong. The idea of dramatizing Just Like Us feels like one of those finger-in-the-wind directorial decisions, intended to attract Latino viewers (laudable and practical, given Colorado's demographics) and high-school students in general (also laudable). Unfortunately, that's exactly what this play feels like: a preachy after-school special.

The fact that Marisela is wild and sexy and still one hell of a good student is a contradiction that would surely fascinate on the page; on stage you just see the actress wearing revealing clothes and hear comments about her grades. When a college boy dating one of the other girls casually expresses racist sentiments and — to the horror of her friends — she chooses to overlook them, you can guess at the torment she must be enduring. But playwright Karen Zacarias apparently didn't feel free to invent a scene bringing this inner pain to life. All you get is a pretty young girl smiling — perhaps a touch tensely — at her smug young man. Tom Tancredo's speeches are a bit more shocking when you watch their effect on these vulnerable young women, but they never discuss them, and he's saying things you've heard before — as is pretty much everyone else on stage. I admired playwright Zacarias's Mariela in the Desert at the Denver Center three years ago, and wish she'd felt free to stray further from the book and experiment more creatively.

Thorpe has written eloquently about the music her four subjects loved, danced to and listened to for consolation, for example, and I wondered if those insights wouldn't have provided some of the heart and soul this production lacks. True, there is a fair amount of music in the play, but — despite one wild and lovely dance scene — it registers primarily as lively background sound. As a character in the play, Thorpe generally listens and says little. Wouldn't it have helped if she'd spoken the real Thorpe's eloquent words on musical genres and what they mean to young Latinas?

The four girls are charmingly acted by Yunuen Pardo (Marisela), Adriana Gaviria (Yadira), Cynthia Bastidas (Clara) and Ruth Livier (Elissa). But it underlines the weakness of the script that a few days after seeing Just Like Us I could remember almost nothing distinctive about any of them.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman