La Esquinita, USA is nothing if not timely. Beautifully acted and neatly staged, Arizona Theatre Company’s latest breaks no new artistic ground yet fits perfectly into the bleak malaise felt by so many liberals these days. Written and performed by Rubén C. González, this smart Off-Broadway one-act suggests the nightmare America a Betsy DeVos administration might leave behind, filled with failed factory towns and undereducated dropouts.
La Esquinita represents both a once-booming American border town and the esquinitas, or “little corners,” in which the poor and undereducated find themselves trapped — those places between prosperity and failure. Now destitute after the tire factory — the main source of work for locals — has shuttered, this mythical town is home to a desperate community of disadvantaged blacks and Latinos, many of them inspired by people the author met while teaching at-risk high school kids. In these stories, American attitudes toward ethnic minorities are more than simply implied.
There’s Lencho, a creepily omniscient narrator who’s witnessed the devastation of this town and especially of Daniel, a 19-year-old meth addict who wants to kick the habit so he can graduate high school, join the Marines, and hopefully get killed during wartime maneuvers. There’s a sadistic cop named Whitey; a junkie named Wilo; a cheerful barber who lost a leg in Vietnam. There are women, too: a bag lady whose one remaining hope is that everyone in Esquinita will come together for a party in the abandoned tire factory, and Daniel’s girlfriend, Grace, whose cautious good wishes transform La Esquinita’s vibrant ugliness for Daniel as well as for those watching this troubling story.
This fast-paced and often funny play transforms González’s students’ words into a series of intertwined monologues, each of them brought vividly to life with a minimum of costuming or contrivance. González, a product of the London Academy for the Performing Arts who’s worked in Hollywood movies with Jennifer Lopez and Jet Li, has created people whose truth-talking is infused with street slang and cautious profanity. Once we grow accustomed to all the posturing and jargony Spanglish, we hear the endless anguish behind it.
We forgive González all this dark despair not only because he enacts it with such grace but also because he’s resisted a tidy “Let’s make lemonade!” approach to the harrowing death of the American factory town. His is a story drenched in fear and hopelessness, one that brings its beauty not in promises of brighter days but in the rich, poetic language in which it’s told.
La Esquinita, USA continues through February 26 at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. Call 602-256-6995 or visit www.arizonatheatre.org.
Correction: This post has been updated from its original version to include the correct closing date of the play.