These were a small handful of quotes from our talkback following the staged reading of "Backyard/Desert" on Thursday, February 15th in Chinatown. Written by Nancy Irene Kelly, the play explores the human ties that transcend all borders, particularly reflecting on border control politics and its ethical faults. When a female border patrol agent finds a young, dying migrant lost in the desert, the aftershocks of the encounter slowly erode the foundations upon which she’s built her life, leading her to question her choices and relationships. In the end, she must make a wrenching decision in order to follow her truth.
It becomes increasingly difficult in this day and age to have level-headed, thought-provoking political discussions that don't end in bitter arguments, explosive Facebook comment threads, or nonsensical spewing of hate. Yet, the uncanny ability of this play to illuminate the harsh realities faced by immigrants along their journey while utilizing subtle character developments to identify conservative grey zones helped launch a discussion that was equal parts provocative, political, and theatrically-inclined. Audience members laughed at the quirky Southern charm displayed between feel-good married couple Sally and Russ (played by Tanya Chattman and Matthew Palumbo) and recoiled at the controlling and masochistic tendencies by Bob (played by Sean Hinckle) directed towards his wife Pammy (played by Samantha Coppola). Sympathy easily turns to empathy for Jose Luis (played by Roberto Tolentino) who openly describes his life back home in Mexico, his "hairy girlfriend" that he loves and plans to marry, his family, his hopes, and his dreams.
Despite Bob's oppressive nature, our audience surprisingly couldn't help but love him: his infectious laughter, his unquenchable desire to please his wife and provide for her, his sense of humor around friends that displayed warmth and loyalty. He may not be a feminist and he's definitely a xenophobe, but he is trying to be a good husband, soon-to-be father, coworker, and friend. He sticks to his morals and displays kindness to those around him with an old-fashioned, "man of the house" caretaker narrative. He's a "nice guy" with good intentions, but damn, our love for him matches our hate. You know the type. You've met a Bob before. You may even be a Bob.
And yet, we can't ignore the blatant xenophobia displayed by these border control agents throughout the play. We can't dismiss Bob's control over his wife's sovereignty and ultimately, her body, which he sees himself as partial owner. People exist throughout the United States and ultimately, the world, who are on this spectrum of trying to achieve harmony within their personal lives but fail to recognize the harm they are unintentionally causing others. Call it a result of cultural conditioning, growing racial tensions, media frenzies, socioeconomic fucked-ness, or a combination of all these references (and then some), they fail to identify and address the small and large day-to-day habits and systematic oppressions they take part in. Our main character Pammy undergoes an internal transformation that changes the entirety of how she perceives her life. She achieves a basic level of "wokeness" that enables her to see past the political propaganda she has been fed and makes moves to leave everything behind in order to pursue a greater truth. Before her encounter with Jose Luis, Pammy viewed life how she thought logically; she genuinely believed that a closed border was the only solution to sustaining American jobs, fighting off drug lords, and protecting our nation. Is she wrong? Is she right? Can she be a little bit of both?
Can you hate someone who is trying so desperately to do the right thing? Is it possible to view Bob - and people like Bob - as victims also plagued by a culture of patriarchy, racism, and xenophobia? Is ignorance the new scarlet letter, or is simply a first step towards educating, empowering, diversifying? Thematic questions like these help us to probe into the problematic and successful aspects of our society, as well as brainstorm and communicate ideas for continued growth and expansion.