The life story of Judge Xiomara Torres—who journeyed from El Salvador to California as a nine-year-old undocumented immigrant in 1980 and was appointed to the Multnomah County Circuit Court by Gov. Kate Brown in 2017—seems too vast and inspiring to be contained by a single stage. Yet Judge Torres, a new play by Milta Ortiz that is making its world premiere at Milagro Theatre, dares to retrace Torres’ footsteps.
A less inventive playwright might have chronicled Torres’ experiences with dull, dutiful faithfulness. Yet Ortiz—whose visionary spirit is expressively channelled by director Mandana Khoshnevisan and a terrifically versatile cast—takes a stranger and more engaging approach. She has created a play that, while not strictly true to Torres’ life, uses symbolism and spirituality to get to the truth of it.
Judge Torres begins by showing us Torres’ childhood in El Salvador, which the play sums up in the idyllic image of Xiomara (Marissa Sanchez) dressed in a jaunty pair of overalls and raving about her love of books. Her bliss, however, is soon overshadowed as civil war ravages El Salvador, forcing her and her siblings (Cindy Angel and Eduardo Vasquez Juarez) to flee across the U.S.-Mexico border near Tijuana, Mexico.
When the Torres family arrives in America, they are giddy—to them, even the sight of vending machines packed with Coca-Cola is a revelation. But glee gives way to terror for Xiomara when, at 13 years old, she reveals that she has been sexually abused by a family member (per Torres’ request, the play doesn’t reveal the identity of the culprit). Split from her siblings and placed in foster care, Xiomara is left to endure more or less alone as she struggles to embrace her destiny: standing up for the rights of abused children the way that her court-appointed special advocate, Jan Brice, stood up for her.
While there are plenty of somber courtroom moments in Judge Torres, dreamlike wonderment fills the production. When Xiomara and her siblings make their way to the United States, they pass through two rippling pieces of cloth (one blue, one turquoise), a sight that serves as eerie yet beautiful visual shorthand for their travels. And when the play wants to express Xiomara’s emotional state, it relies on movement as much as dialogue. Once scene even gives Sanchez the opportunity to do a short, balletic dance.
Judge Torres’ abundant creativity is also reflected in the casting of Ajai Terrazas Tripathi not only as Jan Brice, but as Xiomara’s therapist and La Siguanaba, a character from Salvadoran mythology who frequently appears to offer Xiomara wit, wisdom and comfort. It’s delightful watching Tripathi transform using myriad costumes and wigs (short and fluffy for Jan, long and dark for La Siguanaba), but having one actor play all of Xiomara’s mysterious mentors also sends a potent message—that Xiomara is guided by a single spiritual force that speaks to her through many different bodies.
That doesn’t mean that Judge Torres believes that its heroine’s achievements are not her own. The play is a salute to Torres’ boundless inner strength, which is perfectly personified by the remarkable Sanchez. While requiring that one person play Xiomara as she progresses from childhood to middle age is risky, Sanchez makes it surprisingly easy for you to suspend your disbelief. You believe in her when she’s the scared girl who guiltily admits, “It takes a lot to be my friend sometimes,” and you believe in her when she is finally appointed to the bench while the voice of Gov. Brown (actually her, in voiceover) rings out through the theatre.
I hope that Judge Torres won’t be the last play written about Xiomara Torres. While I admire the project’s scope, I can’t help thinking that a play focussed on a shorter span of her life (akin to biographical films like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Ava DuVernay’s Selma) could offer a more detailed and intimate perspective. But that doesn’t change the fact that Ortiz has delivered a loving, entertaining and—most of all—imaginative tribute.