Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble's 14

Closer Than You Think
14 explores borders within and without

There's a slight degree of datedness to 14, Jose Casas' 2003 play inspired by the deaths of 14 immigrants in the southern Arizona desert following an ill-fated border crossing. References to 9/11 and the Arizona Diamondbacks' upset of the New York Yankees in the 2001 World Series don't carry the same gravitas seven years after the fact. And any play about the U.S.-Mexico border written before the Minuteman Project, Congressional approval of a high-tech 700-mile border fence and the fervent national debate on immigration “reform” lacks some significant bullet points.

But though motivated by the horrific events that befell 14 Mexican nationals on an excruciatingly hot day in May 2001, Casas' play really isn't about that event. It's more about the ignorance, passions and very real human toll that political rhetoric and symbolic posturing over America's southwestern border with Mexico often obscures.

Casas began working on his oral-history project in 2001 while a student at Arizona State University. What makes it extra-compelling in this Breath of Fire Latina Theatre Ensemble production, which he also directs, is a stellar four-person cast (April Ibarra, Daniel Penilla, Elsa Martinez Phillips and Juan E. Carrillo) that breathes intensity and believability into each of 14's 14 monologues.

There's an Anglo senior citizen who'd rather spend his sunset years meditating to the sight of remote-controlled airplanes gliding over his ranchland, but who feels forced into quasi-vigilante status by “trespassers” on “his land.” There's a homespun Texas preacher who has decided to play God by setting up water stations in the hostile desert for parched immigrants. There's the wife of a Mexican-American INS agent killed for wearing a badge; a Scottsdale jewelry-store owner who isn't “racist,” but does believe in “standards” in her lily-white community; a Yuma hardware-store owner grappling with his son's role in the beatings of two “beaners”; a frustrated U.S. Marine wondering why he's being sent to fight a war in a desert 3,000 miles from his home when, he says, his country is losing another war in the desert on its home turf.

And though Casas' play does ultimately side with the view that those who attempt the perilous land crossing are complicated human beings rather than criminals and deadbeats, no character, regardless of where they land on the political spectrum, comes across as completely noble or inhuman. (Except for the Scottsdale jewelry merchant. She's just an asshole.)

Ultimately, 14 is a sobering slice of multifaceted life that convincingly proves two things: First, no fence, posse or governmental regulation will ever “fix” illegal immigration until and unless we examine our prejudices. Second, this very new theater troupe crammed into a tiny space on Fifth Street in downtown Santa Ana is the only company in this county dealing with issues that directly affect its community.

That's underscored when walking back to your car after exiting the space. Though located in the shadow of the looming Ronald Reagan Federal Building, the theater is only a few steps from this county's only genuine downtown, one with a Starbucks on the corner of Broadway and Fourth, but not an Old Navy or even Baja Fresh in sight.

And as the SanTana winds kick in and the setting sun casts an eerie orange tint on the top of a place named after one of this county's Anglo “pioneers,” the Spurgeon Building, you can't help but wonder how the ubiquitous brown-skinned faces you see got here.

Sure, only a fucking idiot believes every brown-skinned resident of Santa Ana was trucked across the border by a coyote, and only similarily deluded fools think the color of their skin somehow entitles them to call home a place we all collectively rent. But it's only natural after seeing a play like 14 to wonder if the cocky vaquero striding down Broadway, or the weathered abuelita hawking frutas, or the father windowshopping with his wife and children, or their friends or members of their familia have ever attempted their own border crossing.

And then you're struck by a realization: The border isn't 100 miles to the south. It's right here. Right now.

14 by the Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble, El Centro Cultural de Mexico, 310 W. Fifth St., Santa Ana, (714) 540-1157; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through March 15. $10-$15.

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