By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE
In Olga Sanchez’s new play Broken Promises, Adriana is a whip-smart girl whose broken life becomes entangled with the winding sex-trade corridor known as the West Coast Circuit. Sanchez, back at Milagro, where she was until recently artistic director, and director Francisco Garcia collaborate to remind us that a golden cage is still a cage.
Part mural and part graffiti, scenic designer Tomás Rivero’s stage background has two winged dancing calacas, or skeleton figures, with a banner saying, “It’s not me, es la vida,” winding through their embrace. A grip of blindfolded Ben Franklins shouts out, “In no one we trust.” The stage invokes the moving picture from a freight train, the kind you see lined up in the yards, carrying outlaw messages across the land.
At the start of Broken Promises, which is part of the city-wide Fertile Ground festival of new works, a jazz upright bass line quickly moves from a high-society chord to a heavy beat and break. Just as in Sanchez’s script, the furious sounds and story unfold fast, and Garcia’s players move in and out in a perfect tempo. Roman Vasquez’s soundtrack is real. Hip-hop aficionados will recognize and appreciate the cuts he makes: there’s a nod to 1977, the 2010 album from the Chilean political hip-hop star Ana Tijoux. Milagro has carefully linked the sound, script, backdrop, and actors in a detail that constantly echoes the motifs in the play and references them to Latino culture. Sanchez’s dialogue and Garcia’s gentle hand have made a performance that is tangible, but carries the weight of tragedy with a poetic intensity.
Josefina (Shenekah Telles) is on her phone having a rough conversation with her papi, because she can’t find a job and needs money while living with her tia. She’s got the weight of the world on her shoulders, looking for work, mourning the death of her mother who overdosed, and going to high school. Esteban and Raul are around to take her mind off all the troubles, but they’re just kids, too and have their own mountains to conquer. Josefina is pretty and young, with perfect styled hair, long lashes, and designer jeans. But despite her careful attention to fashion, she lacks the confidence and experience needed to pull off the facade of her looks.
There’s a new girl at school, and she doesn’t play nice or play at all. Adriana (Monica Domena) lives with her mechanic father, who often has a drink in his hand. Adriana’s biding her time until she’s an adult and can escape the rough world she was brought up in. Her thick curly hair is wound into heavy braids that sit just below her lumberjack flannel shirt. She sports a pair of simple Keds and hops back and forth with the energy of a kid in the body of a woman. She’s got natural beauty that, with the false impression of makeup, could have men lined up around the block. Adriana is hiding her attractiveness, her femininity, which she feels could render her powerless if she let it show. She’s the opposite of Josefina: Her mind is full of dreams and the drive to achieve them, but her body is a prison. The two girls are oil and vinegar at the start. But soon, with the boys at school, Esteban and Raul, they form an adolescent family.
Adriana is a wounded fighter whose discipline and years of struggle are focused on going to college. She hits the books hard. At the center of the play is one of its most harrowing, but artfully directed and acted, scenes. Adriana has had a hard day, and when her father comes home, he spins the moment of comforting her into raping her. The lights turn low and red, and Adriana is laid out on the floor in a crucifix pose, but looks more like a dying swan. The air becomes heavy and dank as we watch this ballet of destruction unfold. Adriana’s father says: “It’s a dog eat dog world, and I’m the man.” The theme of patriarchy and the unspoken bargaining between men and women runs heavily through Broken Promises.
Geo Alva, as Esteban, wears a black-and-white stars and stripes T-shirt, and while he’s failing all his classes, he’s got his mind on climbing to the top of the economic ladder: he’ll be a leader, a president. He’s drop-dead charming, and Raul, Josefina and Adriana can’t tell him “no.” Alva plays him as the guy we all knew in high school who was at the bottom of the food chain, but whose magnetism allowed him to manipulate crowds. Esteban is a chameleon. His self-assurance hints that he’s got a past – experience in the world they’re falling into. Adriana pushes away his advances at first, but eventually she’s taken by his golden tongue, and the cycle she’s been trying to break with her father is now bound to be repeated. The world she lives in will become a magnified, warped labyrinth of drugs, alcohol, sex, money, and losing her identity.
Ajai Terrazas Tripathi plays a number of roles in Broken Promises – father, teacher, kid. Despite the mandatory costume changes, he stands out as an impressive sketch in each part he takes on.
When we think of sex trafficking, we think of a secret society in a dirty cheap apartment, trading bitcoin currency for childhoods and innocence. The faces behind sex trafficking aren’t lonely, soiled losers; they could be the faces of anyone. The children exploited come from many backgrounds, but a high number are from the Latino, black, and Asian communities. The fragile economic class they live in makes them easy targets for the lure of escaping through big money real fast. Sanchez wrote the play to bring the voices and truth out from the shadows and show us how easily lives become entangled in this web.
One of the strengths of Broken Promises is that its story straddles cultural, social and age divides. Young, old, privileged, and vulnerable people will hear her message. The acting by all four players is genuine: you feel a sense of understanding with their characters’ circumstances, what drives them, their strengths and faults.
Sanchez worked with Planned Parenthood in researching the script, and the stories in Broken Promises are true. The play is the only one director Garcia could recall being produced about sex trafficking of minors in the Latino community. For a few years local and national news sources have been reporting on the specifically West Coast epidemic, and Portland is one of the hubs for predators and their prey.
During Fertile Ground, Milagro will have guest speakers at the performances to give more information for community outreach. The play will go on tour, on the corridor that runs the child victims, in the hope that it brings awareness to the neighborhoods, people and futures it impacts. Milagro has created an impressive backdrop through sound, paint, and characters, with a gripping and real story at the forefront.
Broken Promises continues through January 23 at Milagro. Ticket, schedule, and supporting-event information are here.