Review: Fresno State’s earnest ‘Just Like Us’ resonates in a turbulent time
Marisela was 7 years old when her family crossed the desert from Mexico into the United States. She doesn’t remember much, if anything, of what came before that. She’s only known one country as home. When we meet her as a high school senior in the opening scene of “Just Like Us,” she is an exuberant example of a good kid on the fast track to success: top of her class, whip-smart and filled with confidence, itching to attend a top U.S. university.
But she’s undocumented. And even in the semi-enlightened environs of 2004 Denver, where Karen Zacarias’ insightful and important play is set, Marisela’s murky immigration status is devastating. She can’t get a legal driver’s license. She can’t fill out federal student-loan applications. She can’t even fly on a plane. Marisela is in a weird liminal space. She floats between two worlds — “legal” and not — while never quite belonging in each.
Fresno State director Gina Sandi-Diaz, hired last year as the university’s first Latinx theatre specialist, selected “Just Like Us” as her second-year production. It was a timely choice. Even though many of the events that Zacarias depict occurred 15 years ago, the play has a ripped-from-the-headlines feel. For the second time in recent months, I’ve been overwhelmed by the symmetry of events going on inside and outside the doors of a theater. (The other experience that hit me hard was “Measure for Measure,” a tale that includes sexual harassment and rape, which I saw when the Brett Kavanaugh hearings were in full thrall.) During the run of “Just Like Us,” the president of the United States is sending 15,000 troops to “guard” the southern border. You can’t get any more cutting-edge topical than that.
At its best, the Fresno State production viscerally captures the personal impact of U.S. immigration laws on people such as Marisela (played by a vibrant Saywa Chuji), whose tale is told over a period of several years. Her friend Yadira (Tatianna Olguin) is also undocumented. Their stories are contrasted with two of their close friends, Clara (Jolissa Hernandez) and Elisa (Cecilia Cantu), who were born in the United States. As the women graduate from high school, the opportunities given to the two who are citizens — college scholarships, freedom of travel, peace of mind from worrying about getting busted by the police — become clear.
The play can feel strained at times, however. It’s based on the real-life experiences of author Helen Thorpe, whose book chronicled the stories of the four high-school friends. Helen (who is married to Colorado governor John Hickenlooper) is depicted by Emily Kearns in mostly humble terms. It’s a measured and moving performance, but having an upscale white woman as narrator driving the play seems awkward, however. Why not tell the story of the four friends from their perspectives and let it develop from the ground up, so to speak, rather than package it into a fact-finding mission sent out from a more affluent zip code?
Another weakness: The writing is sometimes didactic and lacking in nuance, and Sandi-Diaz as director isn’t able to overcome it. Platitudes abound. Many of the secondary characters seem to exist in order to deliver talking points and little more. (A standout Andrew Trevino, playing a number of important smaller roles, is able to buck that trend.) In perhaps the clunkiest scene, a college dorm-room discussion about immigration comes across as detached and curiously inert, as if the characters are exchanging position papers.
Marc Petros’ deft lighting design tempers some of that coldness, but Rene Nielson’s scenic design doesn’t help in terms of warmth. Dominated by an outline of the city skyline and the message “Welcome to Denver,” the all-white set immediately brings to mind an airport arrivals hall, and I couldn’t shake that impression throughout. I wanted to like the fold-out, advent-calendar-like panels that add specific touches to various scenes. And the gliding platform is a nice bit of innovation. I think that Nielson was going for an ethereal, limbo-like sensibility that matches the “holding pattern” frustration felt by the play’s undocumented characters. But the set can’t overcome that feeling of generic airport blandness.
Still, there are also moments of great emotional intensity in the Fresno State production.
I particularly like a scene late in the second act when Marisela confronts Helen about what makes an “American woman.” (Curiously, for a play about a topic that so many people care passionately about, the argument between them is one of the few times in the production that the action flares up and feels inherently theatrical rather than intellectual.)
I also greatly admire the care and earnestness with which the director and her cast bring this story to Fresno State.
At the end, I couldn’t help but think about the 7-year-old Marisela beginning her journey in the desert. That’s a journey we all need to know more about. “Just Like Us” is a good start.