Bust in the Dust

Although I spent two and a half hours looking at it the other night, I'm not entirely sure what Ramona is meant to be. I can tell you what it isn't: It's not at all entertaining. Although Ramona is parenthetically a historical play, contains a love story and occasionally goes for laughs, it isn't funny or rom-antic or particularly informative.

Written by ASU playwright-in-residence Guillermo Reyes and directed by ASU theater professor David Vining, Ramona is an adaptation of Helen Hunt Jackson's historical romance novel. Jackson's book has been previously adapted for the stage and screen, and it always carries a moral lesson that condemns America's Indian policy and denounces race and class distinctions.

In this version, Ramona, who was orphaned as a baby, is a young woman of ambiguous lineage. She falls in love with Allesandro, a Native American man "not worthy of her station." Amid much persecution and betrayal by her adoptive mother, former boyfriend and the U.S. government, Ramona attempts to forge a life for herself and Allesandro. The backdrop for this turgid love story is a preachy land war between Mexicans and Californians that reminded me of every filmstrip I slept through in American history class 20-odd years ago.

I'm never surprised when student productions are badly acted, but what's startling here is the lack of compassion Reyes displays for any of his characters. His people are either oafish stereotypes or shrieking harridans. Allesandro is a one-dimensional, dime-store Indian; the Señora an unyielding monster mother we never grow to like. We want to root for Ramona, but she moves so quickly from spoiled brat to madonna/whore to political activist to martyr that we can't keep up with her.

Angela Giron, one of two adults in the cast, plays the steely Señora in one long bellow, contorting her face and whipping wildly from side to side as if possessed by a seizure. Elsewhere, Vining does what he can with a stage full of novices, but no director can overcome dialogue like this:

Felipe to Ramona: Go marry Jim Farrar and be his whore!

(Ramona slaps Felipe)

Ramona: Now see what you made me do!

On the night I witnessed this sleepy spectacle, much of the reluctant audience was made up of teenagers on a high school field trip. On the way out, I chatted with Stacia, a sophomore from Yuma, about what she thought of Ramona.

"Like, it was totally good," she told me. "Because Ramona was, like, totally in love with that guy in the white shirt, but she knew she couldn't, like, marry him or anything because he was like her brother or something. So then she fell in love with the Indian guy, and then it was like Titanic, because Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet knew that, like, they could never marry either because she was like rich and he was poor, and they were all 'I love you! I love you! We'll find a way!' But you knew they couldn't, because you knew the boat was going to sink and they would die and stuff. But, like, I liked Ramona, even though it was hard not to laugh when that Indian guy came out because his hair made him look like Pocahontas."

I cannot improve upon Stacia's assessment. She is, like, totally right.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela