Braided Sorrow weaves fantasy with grim reality at El Centro Su Teatro

No one knows exactly how many young women have been murdered in the Mexican border town of Juárez over the last decade, perhaps three or four hundred. The murder rate shot up after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed in 1994, when several U.S. companies set up assembly plants in Juárez in search of cheap labor and Mexicans began pouring in from the country's impoverished interior. The owners of the maquiladoras, as these plants are called, preferred hiring young women, even teenagers, on the grounds that female fingers are more nimble — but in reality because, in a patriarchal society, women are more vulnerable than men, easier to exploit and less likely to try to unionize. No one knows who's committing the murders in this violent and drug-riddled place, either, but there has been so little official attempt to help the victims or seek out the killers that some people believe the local police must be involved. In at least one case, the attacker was the driver of a bus hired to take female workers home at night. There's also speculation that the killing may be a male response to the disruption of traditional family roles now that the women are working.

The Juárez murders caught the attention of Marisela Treviño Orta, who made them the subject of her first play, Braided Sorrow. It's a gutsy start. How do you re-create this level of terror and violence on a stage without exploitation, falseness or melodrama? How do you expose the callous practices of multi-national corporations without sounding shrill? Orta chose to approach her subject head-on, with sincerity and compassion. Her story concerns a teenage girl, Alma, who comes to Juárez to join her brother and sister-in-law, Yadria, and help support the family. Before Alma can even begin work, though, Yadria is fired for being pregnant. Now Alma must face the frightening journey to and from the maquiladora and the increasingly aggressive overtures of her supervisor on her own.

Orta intertwines Alma's story with the legend of La Llorona, a mystical weeping woman in white who drowned her own children in a fit of jealous rage and now haunts lakes and rivers lamenting their deaths. In Braided Sorrow (the title refers to the beautiful long braid that Alma sacrifices so she will be less alluring to men), La Llorona represents all of wronged womanhood — sometimes the murder victims, sometimes their grieving mothers. She also attempts to protect the young women of Juárez but is ultimately overwhelmed by the ugly forces at work there.

The script isn't perfect. Occasionally the dialogue is obvious, there's a bit too much repetition and some of the poetic passages fail to soar. But overall the production works precisely because of the low-key and unpretentious writing. As always with El Centro Su Teatro productions, director Anthony J. Garcia uses the straightforward, almost presentational style of the original Teatro Campesino, which grew out of the 1960s farm-worker movement in California. This, too, adds credibility to the script, though sometimes you long for a stronger and more varied dramatic rhythm. Still, Garcia has elicited profoundly moving performances from his actors in this world-premiere production, beginning with Gemma Aguayo, whose ethereal beauty reminds us that her character's name — Alma — means "soul," and who played the enchanting child bride of Bas Bleu's Beast on the Moon a few years ago. Aleta Ulibarri is restrained and touching as Alma's aunt; Marianna Chavez makes a sympathetic Yadria; and Aaron Vieyra brings open-hearted humor to the role of Alma's brother, Carlos. Jose Aguila is the lascivious boss, and his mix of insecurity and anger when he's rejected is particularly effective. Playing a ghost is a dangerous undertaking; it's too easy to veer into parody. But Valarie Castillo has immersed herself so deeply in La Llorona's grief that she effortlessly takes us with her.

It's a tribute to the talent and dedication of the writer, director and cast that a faint uneasiness haunted me for several days after I'd seen this play.