Review | I Come From Arizona: beautifully bilingual

Childrens Theatre Company, through November 25

Ayssette Muñoz and Nora Montañez in I COME FROM ARIZONA. Photo by Dan Norman.

What does “Global Perspectives” mean, anyway?

Carlos Murillo’s I Come from Arizona (CTC) offers a few suggestions. In this bilingual play, 14-year old Mexican-American Gabi Castillo (Ayssette Muñoz), who, living on the South Side of Chicago, moves to the elite Northside Prep.

The play’s world is multilingual. For those who do not know Spanish, there is no reason to shy away from the fact that almost half the play consists of Spanish words, phrases or sentences. Murillo’s script does a fantastic job of providing subtle translations, and the actors communicate with excellent non-verbal panache.

And really, having the experience of not understanding someone else’s language – that’s a global perspective, isn’t it?

Another tenet of “global perspectives” is that it involves intersections: unexpected intersections of places, ideas, people – a theme neatly captured by Yu Shibagaki’s set, where the spaces of home, classroom, streets and public transit literally intersect.

At Northside Prep, the differences between worlds are stark. One example: private school transplants like Fiona and Ricardo (played by the energetic Madison Neal and Antonio De La Vega, respectively) carry around flashy Apple products — smartphone, iPads, etc — while Gabi uses a beat-up notebook and has only recently received a flip-phone as a gift from her mother. A classroom discussion on Trump’s border wall also quickly (and conveniently) illuminates contrasting viewpoints.

Murillo reminds us of other intersections: reference is made to gentrification in Chicago’s South Side, with people moving there from the glitzy North Side; Ricardo talks about his Polish grandfather who came to the US to flee the Nazis; their Global Perspectives teacher, the African American Ms. Chan (played by the versatile Shá Cage), has a Chinese last name – a nod to the Chinese Cuban community and their unique history.

What makes I Come From Arizona such a valuable piece of theater is its deep emotional appeal: a rich story, a strong cast and effective design. Lisa Portes’ direction ensures clarity about the issues at hand. There is also much visceral nuance that makes this play about more than immigration and instead, about belonging and our essential humanity.

I Come From Arizona boasts a talented cast. Nora Montañez is a striking performer, playing a mother with by a painful secret, which she unfolds in a tear-jerking revelation. Muñoz is a very convincing anxious teen who, despite being weighed down by responsibilities her peers do not have, nevertheless manages to shine through. Luca La Hoz Calassara effectively plays Gabi’s eight-year-old brother.

Much credit is due to the designers. Victor Zupanc’s dynamic sound design contributes to subtle atmospheric changes in just the right ways. Trevor Bowen’s costumes fit each character to a T(ee) (I also imagine he had a lot of fun with Ricardo’s costumes!); Paul Whitaker’s lighting, with Zupanc’s soundscape, is particularly gripping in a more fantastical scene.

There is a lot in I Come From Arizona to help the audience put together a picture of the immigrant experience in America – including high school assignments that have seemingly innocuous questions, but are, in reality, dangerous to some. The mission of the Children’s Theater Company “to educate, challenge, and inspire,”  I Come From Arizona does all three to amazing effect.

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