Wet: A DACAmented Journey
Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA at Atwater Village Theatre
Extended through September 10
We have all heard horrendous tales of the hardships and uncertainties facing the undocumented struggling to cope with our fractured immigration system, but that knowledge is pretty abstract compared to the grueling realities of being there. Actor/writer/poet Alex Alpharaoh has been there, for thirty-odd maddening and painful years, and he shares the reality of that experience with gut-wrenching passion.
After a long and dangerous trip from Guatemala to Mexico, 3-month-old Alex was smuggled into the U.S. by his 15-year-old mother. He grew up in Los Angeles, but because his entry into the country was undocumented, he lived completely under the radar. He had no papers — he could not get a Social Security card, or a driver’s license. He couldn’t rent an apartment, open a bank account, or even get a library card.
Nevertheless, he was able to go to college and train to become a social worker. And in that capacity, he investigated cases of elder abuse, uncovering a vicious and cruel abuser and gathering evidence to bring him to trial. Told at first he would not have to testify in court, he was ultimately called upon to do so. A request for his social security number from a woman at the DOJ revealed that he was not a citizen.
Alex was charged with falsifying a birth certificate (though he hadn’t) and faced prosecution. His teachers and mentors testified to his skill and qualifications as a social worker, and his useful work for the community, but he was still required to plead guilty to the lesser charge of disturbing the peace — which meant that all his further efforts to achieve citizenship would be compromised. As he commented during the play, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
By this time, he was in his thirties, with a cherished fifteen-year-old daughter. He had somehow managed to function, despite the hardships, till it began to appear that Donald Trump might win the presidency. It seemed the only way he could proceed was by briefly returning to Guatemala and then reentering the country, with the distinct possibility that once he left, he might not be allowed to return, and would be repatriated to a place he’d left at the age of three months.
The trip was harrowing and suspenseful, fraught with uncertainty at every turn. In the end, Alex was able to secure a student visa good till 2019 — although, given the volatility of the Trump regime, he still could be picked up and expatriated at any time. Even doing this show is a real act of courage.
I am generally not a fan of the one-person show, but this one is exceptional. Not only is the subject important, but the show itself is gripping and exciting, and also rich in humanity and funny in its lighter moments. The piece is most powerful when the performer simply tells his story and lets it speak for itself. It’s less successful when it turns polemical, which is fortunately not often.
Kevin Comartin gives the piece near flawless direction, and Amanda Knehans designed the handsome skeletal set.
Ensemble Studio Theatre at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue, Los Angeles. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m.; extended through September 10. http://brownpapertickets.com/event/3050680 or (818) 839-1197. Running time: 90 minutes with one 10-minute intermission.