Juárez earns the distinction of being Mexico’s most dangerous border town. But this violent locale becomes the setting for hope, faith and courage in a new play that makes its national debut in Kansas City.
“The Ghosts of Lote Bravo” focuses on sweatshop worker Juanda (Vanessa A. Davis), whose daughter goes missing. Securing no help from the police, Juanda turns to the dark saint La Santa Muerte (Spanish for the Holy Death) for guidance in her search.
The play opened this week and runs through May 8 at Unicorn Theatre.
Last October, director Ian R. Crawford joined Brooklyn-based playwright Hilary Bettis on a trip to Mexico to help develop her play’s translation to Spanish.
“One of the best things of being a theater director is we get to delve into worlds that are not our own all the time,” Crawford says.
A San Francisco native who earned his theater degree from Fordham University, Crawford has been with the Unicorn for two years. Originally, he worked even further behind the scenes, building the stage and hanging lights. Last season he presided over his first main stage production: “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.” He is now the theater’s director of development.
Crawford readies a KC cast that also includes Rebecca Muñoz, Justin Barron, Dawnnie Mercado, Bradley J. Thomas and Francisco Javier Villegas (whose family hails from Juárez) to tackle this challenging material.
The 31-year-old director spoke to The Star about the collective journey of bringing “The Ghosts of Lote Bravo” to the stage.
Q: What do you find exceptional about this play?
A: The first thing that struck me was it’s a really female-driven story. We live in a male-dominated world, and we’re seeing this story about the struggles of women from a female perspective as told by a female playwright.
It’s a story that gets to explore these incredibly strong female characters and themes. That’s not something we get to see every day.
Q: What has your collaboration with the playwright been like?
A: It’s really wonderful working with Hilary Bettis. Because this production is part of a rolling world premiere sponsored by the National New Play Network, we’re one of three companies (along with ones in Tucson, Ariz., and Cleveland, Ohio) that are producing the play within a year.
We had the great fortune to get a grant to go to Mexico City to develop a Spanish-language translation, which the Unicorn isn’t using, but one of the productions will be. It was great being able to develop that translation, to deepen our understanding of Mexican culture and to delve into some of these ideas explored in the play, particularly Santa Muerte, who is the folk saint of death.
Q: Do you have a favorite takeaway experience from visiting Mexico?
A: I’ll give you two.
As a group, we traveled all over Mexico City visiting shrines to Santa Muerte. We went to four different shrines to her, including the first public shrine to her in Tepito, which is a really rough slum. Most people warned us not to go.
We learned a ton getting to speak with the woman who runs that shrine. To see the effect this saint has on everyday people and to learn how divided people are about her was incredibly informative.
The other thing we got to do was go to the pyramids just outside the city. We climbed to the top. Just being on the top was a pretty amazing and special way to end the trip.
Q: When working with material that has so much social and political significance, does this alter how you approach a production?
A: I don’t think so because I feel that all theater is political if it’s doing its job right. To resonate in an important way, even if it’s light — like a comedy, like Oscar Wilde — it’s still saying something political in choosing that form.
This type of active political work is really important and always a thread through the directing projects I choose.
Q: Have you tried any new ways of marketing this production to the Latino community?
A: We do a lot of outreach for all of our programs. The Unicorn is always delving into different worlds they take on. I know we’re advertising in some of the Spanish-speaking papers.
We do a cool event called “Peek at the Play” where we invite groups to come to an open rehearsal and have a glass of wine and talk with our artistic director. We had the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce come with some other groups to see that. It was great to hear their feedback and be part of the process.
Q: Are you fluent in Spanish?
A: No. I took eight years of it as a kid — I grew up in Northern California. By the end of the trip down to Mexico, I was understanding a lot more than at the beginning.
I’m not fluent in Spanish, but neither is the playwright. She is of Mexican descent, but when her grandfather crossed the border, he wanted to be more American so he didn’t speak Spanish with his children. He wanted them to assimilate.
Hilary said one of the reasons for her exploration of these Mexican stories is to reclaim and draw a line back to that part of her history.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
“The Ghosts of Lote Bravo” runs through May 8 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. Call 816-531-7529 or go to unicorntheatre.org for more information.