As the audience forms in this parking lot, a misty drizzle forms in the air. Thursday night’s showing of La Cortina de la Lechuga, the latest play written and directed by Cristal Gonzalez, is performed outdoors at El Cerritos Townhomes in Castroville.
Set in a farm town that is never named, the one-hour play that’s mostly in Spanish presents the story of a family facing eviction and increasingly turbulent times for migrants in America.
The weather conditions could be nature’s special effects for the opening scene. A group of eight farm workers begin to sing, behind the row of chairs where the audience sits, as they pantomime picking lettuce. Their costumes of plaid shirts, straw hats and boots make them almost blend in with the crowd.
The first lines spoken by a foreman ring eerily relevant to recent rhetoric by President Donald Trump.
“Get to picking,” the foreman yells. “And if you don’t like it, go somewhere else.”
The focus on farm workers is reminiscent of other plays by the East Salinas-based Baktun 12. But scenes inspired by today’s political climate are the distinct touch of Gonzalez. If the streetside venue feels reminiscent of early El Teatro Campesino, the theater company that established itself by performing on pickup trucks in grape fields, it’s partly due to Gonzalez’s experiences co-directing Teatro’s 2017 production of Viva La Causa.
Though every scene deals with an array of political and cultural issues, the commentary does not dilute the relationships between characters. The narrative not only takes on landlords lacking empathy, but also issues of family dynamics.
Paco, a middle-aged farmworker and the leading male character, comes home to his wife Mama Consuelo and complains of lack of work. Her suggestion of asking neighbors for help is a striking challenge to his machismo. Paco’s actor portrays the proud character with a voice that can go from ruggedly raspy to hollow and vulnerable.
“This government laughs at the working man,” Paco says as he sinks into a chair.
The props are pulled from everyday kitchens. A bowl filled with real pan dulce, a tortilla press on a counter and a tall can of Modelo in a character’s hand.
The stage itself is sensible and small. Three strips of painted curtains are propped up to serve as a wall for Paco and Mama Consuelo's apartment. It’s the only set that’s used and the only one that’s needed as the majority of the drama unfolds in the family home. There’s a sudden rise in rent delivered by the antagonist that is an anonymous property manager, alarming news on TV of potential ICE raids coming to town and a reckoning within the family.
With all the obstacles faced by the family, Paco ponders whether they should’ve stayed where they came from after all.
“There we had nothing,” Mama Consuelo responds. “Nothing but the tombs of our parents.”
There’s no clear solution to any of these timeless and timely issues. But the culmination of this story hints at the idea that there can be empowerment in coming together as a community.
La Cortina de la Lechuga runs 6pm Saturday and Sunday, July 20-21. Saturday show at Teamsters Hall, 207 N. Sanborn Road, Salinas; Sunday show at Breadbox Rec Center, 745 N. Sanborn Road, Salinas. Free. 310-743-4935.