“Mojada” means “wet” in Spanish, and in Luis Alafaro’s play, a reworking of Medea that opens at the Public Theater on Wednesday night (to Aug. 11), it is a word that comes to have many meanings, from the comfort of rain to Medea herself (Sabina Zúñiga Varela) lying on the floor, pleading for her life, accepting the racist insult “wetback” aimed against her and other undocumented Mexican immigrants.
This critic saw the play, originally written in 2013 and directed by Chay Yew, on the day that ICE raids against undocumented immigrants were due to unfold, and consequently this story, with its cloak of Greek tragedy, had an added charge.
The play opens with Medea, partner Jason (Alex Hernandez), son Acan (Benjamin Luis McCracken), and the older woman Tita (Socorro Santiago), now in Corona, Queens. They are a family not wholly united by marriage and biology, but close nevertheless. Zúñiga Varela is a piercing performer, and McCracken sweet and spontaneous.
A tension is immediately apparent between Medea and Jason; he wants to fully embrace an American way of life and ruthless business ethos. She is making money by sewing. Tita observes all, and Santiago is a bracing guide and wry eye, calling out Jason on his misbehavior.
Medea’s purity is signaled by her simple white dress, and we see her beached between two worlds, telling Acan as she slaps two palm leaves together that this is how he can make his way home; the slapping sounds standing for, variously, wind, a party with music, lovers making love, rain, a baby crying, and a bird in flight, wings flapping.
But Jason wants Acan to call him “dad,” rather than “papi,” and wants him to wear a U.S. team soccer shirt, not a Mexican one.
Arnulfo Maldonado’s set is the exterior of the Corona apartment—and it looks meaningfully rickety and fragile—and the space in front of it is an every-space that becomes most effectively used in a brilliantly imagined segment of the play when the group of actors re-enacts the characters’ journey from Mexico to the U.S.
We feel the helicopters overhead, and the hellish walking in the desert-like wilderness; the relief of water left by churches and good Samaritans; and the vileness of those people who puncture the water vessels so there is no liquid inside them.
The journey, as rendered on the small stage, feels nail-bitingly epic and is beautifully written, acted, and directed. After facing more racist abuse at a McDonald’s, the family do not leave the Greyhound bus they are on, and then Medea endures rape, and we see why, personally and culturally, she wants so little from the American society around her. She has found a small space to operate within that is manageable for her.
Light relief in the production is provided by the wonderful Vanessa Aspillaga as Luisa, who sells churros, and whose bold self-assertion and confidence is a welcome antidote to Medea’s meekness. Her vulnerability is crystallized when the villainous businesswoman Pilar (Ada Maris) sets her sights on the hunky Jason as husband material. She threatens Medea with removing her from her own life if she doesn’t do what she wants her to do.
Soon, Medea’s avenues to safety and freedom start to constrict. Jason’s betrayals become brutal. The concordances with the original Medea, right down to poisoned clothing and murder, also mount up.
Many things—Medea's self-embraced weakness, Jason’s segue from hero and protector to selfish asshole, the simplistic rendering of determined ambition-as-bad, the horror of Medea’s final actions—do not make narrative sense. But in present-day America, Alfaro seems to be saying, the tragedy for immigrants is experienced in many different ways, each a terrible escalation.
The tragedy is bigotry, and the desperation that drives immigrants to find a new life. The tragedy is also a country unwilling or hostile to helping those desperate people make good on their aims and ambitions. The tragedy is inhumanity, racism, lack of opportunity, and the impossibility of taking a stake in a new country. And these tragedies can accumulate to create even worse, more life-threatening tragedies. Medea, as we see, finds a way in, but eventually no way out.