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9-1-1 is a Joke in Yo Town: Justice in Alfaro’s Borderlands

Tom Hawkins

Ohio State University

Luis Alfaro’s adaptations of Greek tragedies wrestle with questions of where his characters can find justice. Living in the shadow of affluence and privilege, these figures identify the shortcomings of the American judicial system. As Las Vecinas, the chorus of neighbors in Electricidad, put it: ‘We don’t dial the 911 no more./No place for la policia in these barrios now./We handle our own.’(Alfaro, 2006, 67). Powers recognized the importance of this theme in both Sophocles’ Electra and Alfaro’s first greco-cholo play by noting that “both Electra and Elelctricidad belong to a world without a system of justice that they can trust” (2011, 195). This theme becomes more prominent in subsequent plays, and I argue that Alfaro’s trilogy coheres largely around an open-ended discussion of the role of justice in borderland communities. My paper falls into three parts: first a presentation of this theme in each play, then a comparison with the situation in ancient Athens, and finally the suggestion that many of the engagements with Greek tragedy that have emerged globally from post-colonial contexts exhibit a similar interest.

Electricidad takes the Sophoclean question of how a family/community deals with a woman who killed her (far from innocent) husband and focalizes this issue around the physical presence of the corpse. With Las Vecinas’ commentary about the uselessness of the police within the barrio, the dead body on stage symbolizes the absence of any accepted and effective system of justice from outside the barrio. This problem obtrudes further in Oedipus el Rey, in which the two Oedipal crimes are precipitated through the penal system’s disruption of family bonds. The mythical narrative of parents getting rid of a cursed child parallels the realities of a young man who cannot recognize either parent, because he has spent nearly his entire life in prison. Eventually released into a world he does not know, he unwittingly kills his father, marries his mother and fulfills a fate fostered less by Olympian deities than by a judicial system that exacerbates, rather alleviates, the problems of the barrio. The Coro emphasizes the demands placed on the community to adjust to the failures of the judicial system as they intone: ‘Out here we need kings./And systems./To operate under the system.' (2011, 34, sic). In Mojada (based on the version I saw at the Oregon Shakespeare Company in July 2017), the problem of justice spills beyond national borders. Jason’s mythological promise of marriage to Medea morphs into a question of official documentation. Alfaro’s Medea reaches the extremity of desperation largely because of the paired traumas of sexual violence experienced during her border crossing and the realization that her marriage to Jason, real in her heart but lacking bureaucratic validation, has no legal force in the United States. If love and family can be undermined so easily by the vulnerabilities associated with crossing a border, how can any universal justice be achieved?

From domestic violence to the failings of the correctional system to the anomie around national boundaries, Alfaro’s adaptations situate his borderland communities in crises of justice. Ancient Athenian drama, closely connected to the courts and the radical democracy, similarly presented judicial crises as part of a civic dialogue. Today’s ossified American judicial system serves certain demographics far more effectively than others, and plays about problems of justice do rarely inform national debates about judicial reform. Populations awash in privilege continue to stage, consume and enjoy Greek tragedy, but it is in borderland communities that dramatizations of judicial crises take on a desperate immediacy. As Alfaro’s greco-cholo characters understand, without effective recourse to a wider judicial bureaucracy, it is the local community that can transform a lament that it is ‘just us’ into better strategies for achieving justice.

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Theatre and Social Justice: The Work of Luis Alfaro

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