From its haunting and provocative beginning to the apocalyptic earthquake at the end, Cherrie Moraga's Watsonville: Some Place Not Here challenges, taunts, inspires, and ultimately frustrates. As the inaugural production for the new Brava Theater Center, the play has a lot in common with the still-to-be-renovated building: Both are wildly ambitious; both have celebrated histories; but neither is really ready, as they say, for prime time. The theater is handicapped (temporarily, to be sure) by poor sightlines and barnlike acoustics, while the play's status as sequel to the lauded Heroes and Saints (1992) is more of an encumbrance than an asset.
Like its predecessor, Watsonville concerns the plight of farm workers in central California. While Heroes and Saints focused on the consequences of the growers' use of poisonous pesticides — most notably horrific birth defects, personified by Cerezita, a disembodied head — the sequel is concerned with a strike in the town's cannery.
Watsonville also intends to serve as a window into the Chicano community. In the richly poetic opening scene (enhanced by Shevra Tait's set design), Dolores Valle (Lee Garay Toney) prays at the altar erected to her dead children, one of them Cerezita. The strike is about to begin and, for a marvelous moment — accompanied by the sweet canciones of John Santos (composer and guitar) and Gilberto Gutierrez (guitar), and deftly staged by director Amy Mueller — a memorable dramatic exploration into the lives crowding the stage appears ready to unfold. With Dolores (beautifully rendered in Toney's heartfelt performance) is her alcoholic husband, Arturo (Gary S. Martinez, on opening night, now replaced by Roberto Varrea), who derides his wife for her prayers.
But — like the myriad themes that are raised and haphazardly considered — it is quickly apparent that Arturo has little or no role. The play careers on to introduce the cannery workers and the chief union organizer, former priest Juan Cunningham (Jesus Mendoza), who since Heroes and Saints has left the church to embrace the revolution.
Any coherence of dramatic progression is quickly undone by the subsequent jumble of scenes, scenes, and more scenes; there's enough material to fill at least three plays. The cannery workers duly go on strike. In the play's futuristic time frame, a national version of Proposition 187 passes, and the entire country sets out on a witch hunt for illegal immigrants. An image of the Virgen de Guadalupe appears on an oak tree in a nearby park. And, as if that weren't enough, there's a hunger strike, a romance, and an earthquake. References to the characters and events depicted in Heroes shed virtually no light on the action and only manage to add confusion.
Watsonville has no single dramatic climax; it makes do instead with a series of popgunlike reports, as though the playwright was acknowledging a need for fireworks at the finale but had no idea which theme should predominate.
The play is further undermined by hollow characterizations and preachy dialogue. Besides the entirely earnest Cunningham, there's Sonora Robles (Vivis), an even more earnest lesbian. There's an assortment of earnest workers, most memorable of which is the sexually adventurous Lucha (Minerva Garcia) and her idealistic adolescent son, JoJo (Peter Gomez). Lucha, at least, has some fire in her eyes (and elsewhere), and as acted by Garcia injects passion and energy into the most listless of moments.
Not the least of Moraga's problems is that she's structured the play around a strike. Strikes are often long, tedious affairs, and this one is no exception. With all that time on their hands, the picketers simply sit (never a good theatrical choice unless you're Pinter) and exchange long, tedious personal histories: There's the obligatory lesbians-are-people-too scene and the religion-vs.-politics scene. And, of course, interspersed throughout are the frequent workers-of-the-world-unite diatribes.
Moraga's indisputable gifts for language and image are most evident in the scenes centered around El Dia de los Muertos. Not surprisingly, these moments are the most effective and affecting. But the playwright undermines her solid theatrical instinct by continually injecting sermons. No one can simply have a conversation without launching into a political diatribe. It's as though the playwright doesn't trust her characters and feels compelled to grab the proceedings from them as soon as they voice the least bit of independence.
She also seems to have little patience for structure and makes liberal use of dilettantish devices, such as one-sided phone conversations and television news reports to provide awkward and largely unnecessary exposition. (We learn of Sonora's lesbianism, for instance, through a clumsy telephone exchange with an ex-girlfriend.) This instead of digging deeper into characters, their needs and wants, and then allowing the action to unfold.
For the most part the performances fall into the same patterns of cliches as the writing. Besides Toney's Dolores and Garcia's Lucha, exceptions include Peter Gomez's fresh-faced and endearingly idealistic JoJo.
Amy Mueller's direction keeps the pacing smart and the focus clear at the outset, but eventually is no match for the murkiness of the script. In short, Watsonville feels jerry-built, as though a contractor had patched it together rather than an architect.
If this sounds overly harsh, it's because the play is so tantalizing in ambition and so frustrating in execution. As I strained to hear the dialogue on opening night, I found myself wishing Watsonville could be slated for renovations as extensive as those planned for the Brava Theater Center.
Watsonville runs through June 30 at Brava Theater Center, 2789 24th St., S.F.; call 487-3401.