By Delia Cruz Kelly
Presented by UCI Claire Trevor School of the Arts’ Drama Department, “Plumas Negras” transported the intimate audience of its opening night to the fertile farmlands of Salinas, California to follow the incredible lives of three generations of gritty, strong-willed women. Their laborious journeys to forge better futures while weighing their connections with the past were written and directed by Juliette Carrillo and performed on a revised, scaled-down version from their original production by Cornerstone Theatre Company in 2013. “Plumas Negras” is playing at the Robert Cohen Theatre on campus from March 10-18.
The stage, set in the center of the room with audience facing inward from two of its sides, was framed on its remaining sides by a large, colorful mural depicting both traditional agricultural scenes and contemporary graffiti art upon a fence and on the other by a large, rusty pickup truck that proved practical for the quick prop changes as a holding bed for simple additions. The production’s unique arrangement created a space so intimate that no subtlety went unnoticed. This detail made the performances of Xander Ritchey and Nicole Cowans as Husband Crow and Wife Crow, respectively, that much more impressive. Their jittery, nervously ticking, restless movements were entirely mimetic of those cawing field birds as if the two had studied them all their lives. The proximity of the audience made the humanity of these characters, whose lives are based on real stories from Mexican farm workers in the East Salinas Community, that much more real and more emotionally experienced.
At the core of the play lies the multi-generational legacy of Concha (Meliza Gutierrez), Perla (Anica Garcia-DeGraff) and Aurora (Heather Lee Echeverria). Concha chooses to come to Salinas and find work on a lettuce farm in order to support her four children in Mexico, but this decision proves difficult when she experiences sexism in the fields. The boss Rogelio (Amilcar Jauregai) and another worker, Eleuterio (Ernest Figueroa), assume that she can’t keep up and turn her away; this is where her fight begins. Concha, with the help of her friend Rebecca (Ariella Kvashny), cuts off her long braids and swaps her dress for a pair of jeans to disguise herself as a man. Her return to the field finds her skill and speed outdoing all the other workers, earning her a job. She finds comfort in Rebecca as the two share feelings of missing a limb, for Concha her children and for Rebecca her husband. Their peaceful stargazing is bombarded by the noise of loud crashes and sirens representing the chaos of the next day. As the tragedy unfolds we learn that Concha and many other workers died in a massive accident on their way to work, but her story doesn’t end here as her spirit lives on in her daughter Perla and her granddaughter Aurora.
Perla followed her mother’s footsteps north to Salinas when she was 14, bringing her own two kids and a determination to provide for them with her. Perla works in the fields just as her mother did, where wages are low and change is slow. She is deprived even of her low wages when she is laid off by Rosa (Ariella Kvashny) for speaking up against Virgilio (Ernest Figueroa), a worker who touched her inappropriately. In her despair, she speaks to the spirit of her mother yelling out her pain. In her powerful moment, she says that her mother’s abandonment all those years ago has left a hole in her heart that eats at her like a parasite, never to be filled.
Combat boots, embroidered jeans, winged eyeliner and hoop earrings usher in the next generation with the introduction of Aurora. Born in Salinas, Aurora has the same inner strength as her mother and grandmother but is more interested in breaking out of the mold and seeking real change. She is a mother to her baby Conchita, and also balances her high achieving academic life with a part time grocer job. She dreams of success through education and this new-age thinking is lost on Perla, who wants her daughter to work as she does. When Aurora’s family refuses to babysit Conchita during an important midterm, she resorts to her dangerous baby daddy for help. The sounds of gunshots blast through the air, and we learn a drive by shooting has threatened Aurora and her baby’s lives. In the suspense of purgatory, Concha, Perla and Aurora are united in a final harmonious scene surrounded by the crows. The three women lean on each other in understanding and, in the culmination of all their strength, finally “let fly.”