Christopher Oscar Peña’s new play, awe/struck., enjoying its world premiere from Profile Theatre for a limited run through Nov. 19 at Imago Theatre, invites audiences to loosen the instincts that impact what we see in each other and the stories we expect to hear.
The playwright doesn’t make any secret of this objective, which he puts in the mouths of two cast members at key moments of the play. He wants us to question our expectations of a Latino play or an immigrant story. As it turns out, he also wants us to question more than that. Which places are dangerous? Why are they dangerous? Who is a victim? Who is an outsider? Who has agency? What kind?
Being a person who doesn’t fit what people expect not only motivates Peña’s instincts to engage these questions, but also likely assists him in doing so. The son of immigrants from Honduras, Peña grew up in San Jose under relatively privileged circumstances. He knows the experience of being both an insider and an outsider, often in ways that subvert what people think they see.
The story of awe/struck. contains similar contradictions. The opening scenes foreshadow a tragedy, but the play takes its time unfolding that tragedy. First we get to know those who will be impacted, beginning with Denia, a young woman from somewhere in Latin America, and her father, Julio. He seeks to protect her by sending her to the U.S., alluding to a risk of violence in their home country.
Americans in the audience will have a way of interpreting such choices; we will be inclined to agree with Julio. But Denia doesn’t. Is she simply young and headstrong? Maybe. Eventually, Julio reveals some things that impact her to get on the flight that he has arranged — but we can already see that Denia does not fit our typical picture of a Latin American fleeing violence, and Julio doesn’t fit our image of a Latin American father. She and Julio are well-to-do and obviously educated; Julio’s reasons aren’t what we are expecting to hear.
The play offers us more time with Denia in the U.S. She is believable, and interesting — compelling, even. In her encounters with white Americans, she expresses herself with power. She doesn’t need their approval. She sees things others aren’t expecting her to see.
The play spends time with other participants in the eventual tragedy as well. A person who makes unthinkable choices is still a person. Though seeing a bit of who they are doesn’t necessarily justify their choices, windows like those opened in this play may help us ask different questions about a tragic event.
Indeed, the play itself was inspired by Peña’s own experience of reading a too-brief account of a similar tragedy, with outlines that left him wholly unsatisfied. That story (which Peña has said involved a woman visiting the U.S. from Ireland) presumably would not have been termed a hate crime; the story in the play might acquire that description. Does that information aid or hinder our sense of what happened?
Profile’s production, as conceived by Artistic Director Josh Hecht, is greatly helped by an especially compelling performance by Crystal Ann Muñoz as Denia. She is luminous — strong, in her body, full of promise, evident even though we learn little of the information we would typically use to make such an assessment. We can see that Denia is full of promise because of how she carries herself, how she responds to conflict, how she speaks about love and home. Muñoz makes us want to know Denia; her performance makes every word and movement count even though there are not enough to tell us everything we would want to know.
Muñoz is supported by a strong ensemble cast. Jimmy Garcia and Skyler Verity appeared in Profile’s recent production of Peña’s how to make an American Son, as did Muñoz, and one senses how this intimate production benefits from investment in shared work. Lea Zawada and Alexandria Hunter bring believable energy to a relationship between young women with differing resources for responding to poverty and disappointment. They make us care about them even as we feel ourselves bracing for a confrontation that will end in tragedy.
Though I felt tempted to quibble with some of the way this story plays out from a legal standpoint, I was not tempted to quibble with the emotional truth expressed. It strikes me that this play is more about who people could be to each other, if we were not so confined by how others see us and how we feel forced to present ourselves. In pushing back on the pressure on some artists to tell stories about the suffering of the marginalized to audiences of people with privilege, “awe/struck.” wants us to question what we are inclined to see. If we could do that, might different possibilities emerge, for love, and family, and connection? Might that change who we are to each other?
- By: christopher oscar peña
- Where: Profile Theatre, at Imago Theatre, 17 S.E. Eighth Ave., Portland
- When: Through Sunday, Nov. 19
- Tickets: Starting at $45; here