Any narrative of the history of U.S. immigration that culminates in 2018 seemingly must, by necessity, end in heartbreak and tragedy.
The world premiere of Austinite Raul Garza’s new play “There and Back” at Ground Floor Theatre, though, paints an intimate portrait of the issue that chooses a different sort of conclusion.
“There and Back,” playing through Aug. 25, tells the story of Gloria, a Mexican woman who immigrated to an American work camp in the 1960s as a part of the Bracero Program in order to join her husband, Victor. It follows Gloria’s life over a broad swath of time, focusing on the ’60s, ’80s and today, thanks to some magical time-hopping courtesy of Gloria’s guardian angel, of sorts, the Virgen de Guadalupe.
Along the way, Garza provides a brief account of the history of immigration to the United States in the latter half of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st. Much of that history is one of betrayal and dashed hopes, spurred on by false promises offered from politicians on the left as well as the right (with particular emphasis placed on the policies of John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and, of course, Donald Trump).
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Garza resists the urge to idealize Gloria and her family, though, and indeed is frequently as critical of issues involving the immigrant community — gender relations, intergenerational political clashes, labor relations, etc. — as he is of U.S. policy. What results is a very human narrative about one woman’s struggle to live a simple life of human dignity in a country that continually tries to rob her of it.
Gloria, as portrayed with sympathetic depth and nuance by Karina Dominguez, is a pillar of quiet yet intense strength. In her relationship with the Virgen (played with divine wit and self-awareness by Giselle Marie Muñoz) we see a journey of self-empowerment that evades and counters much of the hopelessness, hateful rhetoric and violence of our contemporary moment. Though the half-imaginary relationship between the two women serves as the heart of the play, much of the historical breadth of the narrative comes from Mical Trejo’s assaying of three unique generations of Gloria’s family, showcasing the generational nature of the immigrant experience.
Director Patti Neff-Tiven’s production of Garza’s text is elegantly simple, relying largely on the counterplay of a generally realistic set from Ia Ensterä against evocative lighting and sound design from Natalie George and Lowell Bartholomee, respectively, that bring forth the more magical moments.
“There and Back” is not flashy, but in its straightforward earnestness it tells a powerfully important story that more than makes up for a somewhat slow start and ambiguous ending. Garza is a vital voice for our contemporary moment, and his new play is a necessary, humanist contribution to one of the most important conversations of our time.
“THERE AND BACK”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 25
Where: 979 Springdale Road