After nearly a century of losing audiences to the convenience of more viewer-friendly forms of dramatic narrative, the theater’s existential survival has boiled down to a single defining question: What can the stage still deliver that movies, Netflix, video gaming or the cyber entertainment of the future cannot?
One answer, as writer-performer Alex Alpharaoh compellingly demonstrates in WET: A DACAmented Journey, is the unmediated authenticity of the live storyteller. Alpharaoh’s 90-minute solo performance is a singularly moving chronicle of the threat posed by the election of Donald Trump to the country's 750,000 young immigrants called DREAMers. It's a stirring autobiographical account of personal heroism in the face of everyday bigotry that is an act of courage in itself.
In what is perhaps the evening’s most trenchant irony, Alpharaoh matter-of-factly announces that merely by turning up at the theater, he has put himself in legal harm’s way. It’s not hyperbole. Though the White House announced in June that Trump had indefinitely put on hold his campaign pledge to immediately terminate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the Obama program that gives temporary work permits and deportation protection to children smuggled into the United States by their parents, Trump Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents have in the past singled out for arrest DACA holders who've been critical of U.S immigration policy.
Alpharaoh’s harrowing revelations of what it means to live one’s entire existence in a day-to-day, fugitive twilight of nail-biting uncertainty are as expertly ratcheted as any Hitchockian suspense thriller.
His journey begins as a 3-month-old infant when he is carried by his then–15-year-old mother on a near-fatal, epic trek from Guatemala to San Ysidro that serves as an astonishing profile in courage. In Los Angeles, they join his father and settle into the precarious routine of Angelenos struggling to scrape a living in the underground economy. His father becomes a manual laborer. His mother pursues sweatshop work in L.A.’s Garment District. And Alpharaoh undergoes the wrenching childhood rites of passage that come with growing up under the stigma of second-class citizenry.
It is when he is studying acting at UC Irvine in June 2012, and Obama unveils the DACA program, that show kicks into high gear. That’s when Alpharaoh enters the maddening bureaucratic maze of an application process that demands the kind of evidence of his illegal residency that the actor had spent so much of his life concealing. It’s a tribute to his storytelling skills that administrative chores taken for granted by birthright Americans, such as applying for a Social Security number, are imbued with an unnerving anxiety that, with Trump’s stunning election upset, flares into pulse-pounding terror.
There are still some rough edges to director Kevin Comartin’s otherwise focused staging on designer Amanda Knehans’ attractive framework set. But in an odd way, that awkwardness only helps to heighten the evening’s sense of emotional truth and — more importantly — its affecting lessons on the connection between fundamental human dignity and full legal rights.
Ensemble Studio Theatre L.A., 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village; through Aug. 27. (818) 839-1197, dacajourney.brownpapertickets.com.