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Watsonville/Circles in the Dirt (review)

From: Theatre Journal
Volume 56, Number 3, October 2004
pp. 523-525 | 10.1353/tj.2004.0130

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Theatre Journal 56.3 (2004) 523-525

Watsonville/Circle in the Dirt. By Cherríe Moraga. Albuquerque: West End Press, 2002; pp. ix + 165. $15.95 cloth.

Cherríe Moraga has spent her writing career documenting the undocumented, from coediting This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981), an anthology that helped define Third World feminism, to Loving in the War Years: Lo que nunca pasó por sus labios (1983), a path-breaking collection of essays and poems that passionately articulate a Chicana lesbian feminist subjectivity. Similarly, her contribution to Latino/a theatre maintains a feminist viewpoint. In The Wounded Heart: Writings on Cherríe Moraga (2001), Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano argues that the writer's early plays—Giving up the Ghost (1989), Shadow of a Man (1990), and Heroes and Saints (1992)—changed American drama "by insisting on Chicano lives and Chicano language as appropriate matter for the theatre, and by creating Chicanas as desiring subjects . . . . [Moraga] invites Chicanos, including Chicanas and Chicana lesbians, to take up the ideal spectator position monopolized for so long by white, heterosexual, and economically privileged viewers" (25). That trilogy foreshadowed Moraga's later work. In her recently published plays, Watsonville: Some Place Not Here (1996) and Circle in the Dirt: El Pueblo de East Palo Alto (1995), she continues to show the relationship between domestic/private concerns and public/political ones. The plays are set in public spaces (streets, fields, work sites) and confront economically, politically charged matters such as the treatment of immigrants, youths and labor. Both plays also ponder the notion of "home for the dispossessed" (44).

Although Moraga conducted extensive interviews with the inhabitants of East Palo Alto, and bases Watsonville "loosely on three actual events that took place in a central California coastal farm worker town by the same name," she does not use her research in expected ways (4). Unlike documentary theatre practices by playwrights such as Anna Deavere Smith, who use edited interviews verbatim, the voices Moraga listened to while researching the plays merge with her own. The result is drama with vibrant dialogue and compelling, diverse characters. In the foreword Moraga speaks of California's newly emerging majority population and the fear and resistance mounted against them by the powerful. Nearly a decade after Moraga's fieldwork, both places have changed, with East Palo Alto nearly unrecognizable as a result of regentrification. However, Moraga recovers the vanishing histories of these impoverished Californian towns.

Circle in the Dirt, "created from, and inspired by, the stories of the residents of East Palo Alto," occurs during the day that developers have scheduled the demolition of two neighborhood buildings (111). The conversations between neighbors expose the tensions between a difficult past and uncertain future. Although they reminisce about national events ranging from the Depression and Vietnam War to segregation and the Black Power Movement, Moraga avoids nostalgia. Events assumed to be worthy of celebration are called into question. For instance, an older black woman questions the benefits of school integration because children "improved academically, but psychologically . . . their souls were just dying" (130). The play suggests that progress that fails to empower citizens alienates them instead.

Moraga goes beyond illustrating the displacement of the poor and challenges the perception of home as an uncomplicated site. Each character's claim on the land gives way to prior ones as memories unfold. Neither an elderly white couple, a middle-aged Mexican immigrant, nor the twelve-year-old Samoan girl can justify their feelings of displacement once La Capitana, an aging and ageless Muwekma Mexican Indian, arrives. She explains how Stanford, the neighboring university, housed the remains of her ancestors, who first inhabited the area now recognized as East Palo Alto. The conclusion gestures towards survival. Returning the dead and seeds of corn to the earth once the demolition uproots the ground insures that the cycle of life continues.

The three-act play Watsonville: Some Place Not Here incorporates music (including several original compositions), such as bolero, cumbia, and rap in the dramatization of a cannery strike in the rural town near Santa Cruz. Although realism dominates the piece, the appearance of the Virgen de Guadalupe on a tree trunk...