Headline-based ‘Brown Baby’ favors melodrama over characters
TED MILLS, NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT
February 22, 2006 10:15 AM
An essential part of our state’s economy, illegal immigration is the dark shadow that capital casts when laws and regulations are bent or are not enforced. Illegal workers look at Americans and see the life they’d like to lead; Americans look back and see straight through the men and women who do the menial jobs or they see an amassed threat. A porous border, now more dangerous with the inclusion of the dubious “Minutemen” weekend warriors, is all that separates “us” from “them.” And both people may be more similar than we think.
Carlos Morton’s “Brown Baby” at UCSB Performing Arts Theatre comes professing its timeliness with a story ripped from today’s headlines, as they say. Only these headlines have been in the paper for years now — a situation that seems unlikely to change unless it’s going to get worse.
Maria (Victoria Ramos), with daughter Silvia (Aja Naomi King) in tow, has to leave their hometown of Oaxaca, Mexico, when her husband is gunned down by police for having ties to the left-wing opposition party. Pregnant with his child, Maria seeks out the help of the rich Doña Victoria de los Santos (Tiffany Rose Brown). Maria needs passage to America; Doña Victoria can help for a price. Indebted to the price of $3,000, Maria believes that her benefactor will get her work. What we know already is that Doña Victoria is conspiring to keep Maria just south of the San Diego border to sell off her baby in the American black market.
Enter Bill and Lori Sanderson, an upper middle-class couple in their late 30s. Lori wants a child, but is most probably infertile. She’s been tested and injected and studied and bled by science, and is now in the position where a fly-by-night agency headed by Will Eaton (Jewels Eubanks) makes a quick adoption sound like the best choice. Never mind that to Bill the organization sounds dodgy, as well as expensive. Lori wants the baby, and if the mother doesn’t want the child out of shame, then the couple are giving a child the best chance in life it can get.
But Will Eaton is married to Doña Victoria, who is holding young mothers just like Maria in a hideaway called “the crib.” At the end of the first half, Maria has been left in San Diego with Silvia, and Doña Victoria has absconded with the newborn child.
Helping Maria is a Latino INS agent, Perez (Carlos Orlando Peñuela), who may be falling in love with this desperate woman even while he is using her to crack the black market ring.
All this has potential to be compelling drama, and there are a few times when it achieves this, but a lot of Mr. Morton’s “Brown Baby” comes across as television movie-of-the-week melodrama, with characters standing in for ideas, then being moved about on a game board.
Maria is both a strong woman and completely gullible, once a part of her husband’s class struggle against the rich and powerful, yet willing to turn around and involve herself with the upper class Doña Victoria, who is all Prada and Versace, with designer sunglasses hiding her true motives. When Maria winds up in “the crib,” she notices that the other women at the complex are also in their final weeks of pregnancy, but shrugs it off.
Silvia undergoes a similar change — from a distraught daughter vowing to avenge her father’s murder, to an innocent abroad whose discovery of Green Day on a good Samaritan’s personal stereo is used for comic relief. Through these and other scenes, America becomes a land where politics doesn’t happen, where characters are reborn, only to take on a different set of TV roles.
Bill and Lori present a similar series of problems. Alex Knox, currently one of UCSB’s most reliable actors, flounders with a character who is at first (correctly) suspicious of the adoption agency, but then clings to the child when Lori (Lacey Morris) suddenly insists on finding the birth mother. He is also saddled with some embarrassing moments, cooing variations of “La Cucaracha” to their new adopted child. There really isn’t a way to make such a thing work.
Victoria Ramos has a force and presence to go with her tragic face — we immediately believe her as a young widow, but it’s awkward to see her duped and uncomfortable to see her in shy romantic scenes with Mr. Peñuela’s Perez. Also enjoyable is Shaun Hart’s redneck Lt. Hanrahan — out of the entire cast he seems the most relaxed on stage, even though his character’s ignorance marks him as beyond farce.
In the end, Maria is left with a fate that she tells us is inevitable (“I had no choice”), but feels like a major misstep. “Brown Baby” suffers from a similar fate — it has none of the force of inevitability, but the sense of good intentions marked with bad choices.