“The Ghosts of Lote Bravo,” now playing at the Unicorn Theatre, is meant to afflict the comfortable.
It seeks to humanize the hundreds of murders that have bloodied the U.S.-Mexico border for more than 20 years. And, for the most part, it succeeds.
Set in the present day in Juarez, Mexico — which borders the U.S. at El Paso, Texas — the play tells the story of Juanda (Vanessa A. Davis), a young mother of four whose teenage daughter, Raquel (Rebecca Muñoz), has gone missing.
Out of desperation, Juanda casts aside the Virgin Mary of her Catholic religion and begs for the attentions of La Santa Muerta.
Analogous to the Grim Reaper, this “Saint of Death” listens without judgment and has become a popular cultural figure in recent years in Mexico and the American Southwest. The ghoul (played by Meredith Wolfe) appears to Juanda in the night and promises to show her the fate of her daughter for a sacrifice — tequila, at first, but eventually something more.
“Ghosts,” written by Hilary Bettis, is a rolling world premiere of the National New Play Network, which is debuting the work within a 12-month period in Kansas City; Tucson, Ariz.; and Cleveland. The Kansas City production is directed by Ian R. Crawford and features a bevy of local Hispanic actors, both veterans and newcomers.
The women in the cast fare slightly better than the men. Davis, a KC native who graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles and now directs Drama Kids International of NKC, is spectacular. Her anguish and subsequent fear from the loss of her daughter is palpable from the moment she hits the stage.
Wolfe, who has appeared on several local stages (most recently in the Fishtank’s “Gunplay”), seamlessly transitions her Angel of Death from saucy diva to comforting matron. At times, the script lets her down, as it peppers her lines with F-bombs and S-bombs in ways that are more juvenile than cavalier. La Santa Muerte has much more interesting — and provocative — things to say, especially as she recounts the prayers of the dead she has heard in the deceased’s final moments.
Muñoz balances nicely the youthfulness of Raquel with the very adult decisions she has to make for her family. As Juanda’s sweatshop counsel Camille, Dawnnie Mercado carefully covers her character’s own tragic pain.
The male supporting characters are less nuanced. Justin Barron’s El Reloj plays a typical insouciant and violent teen. Police officials Pedro Lopez (Bradley J. Thomas) and Roberto Castillo (Francisco Javier Villegas) on opening night Saturday seemed too aggressive and loud from the jump, leaving themselves no room to build. But the subtlety of Jose Faus, who plays a cantina worker straight out of a Cormac McCarthy novel, was both appreciated and necessary.
At times “Ghosts” feels a little long, in much the same way Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” always feels a little long. The script features perhaps one too many visits from La Santa Muerte.
But the Unicorn’s staging, thanks in no small part to excellent work from the production team, moves seamlessly between past and present, telling the story on multiple levels and locations. The set functions alternatively as a desert, a cantina, a bus stop, a market and a shanty bedroom with cardboard walls with minimal, and very quick, changes. Some truly impressive work has occurred behind the scenes.
“The Ghosts of Lote Bravo” is a story that deserves an audience. The deaths of hundreds of people, most of them women, is a great unsolved tragedy, not only for Mexico but also the U.S. and the world. It’s illustrated midway through the play, as Juanda is visited a second time by La Santa Muerte. Juanda begs her forgiveness for stealing a bottle of tequila.
“Poor mamacita,” the Saint of Death responds. “That guilt just (expletive) eats away at your insides, doesn’t it? You should know by now that I don’t forgive. I listen.”
In a time when social media platitudes and prepackaged prayers are reflexive responses for far-away tragedies, it would benefit audiences to listen to the stories told in “The Ghosts of Lote Bravo.” And take action.
“The Ghosts of Lote Bravo” runs through May 8 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. Tickets are $32.50 through UnicornTheatre.org. Pay What U Can performances are available during the week. The show runs about 1:45 without an intermission and is recommended for ages 18 and up due to adult language, violence and nudity.