Benjamin Benne

Home of the Brave

Review of Alma, Yale Cabaret

The final show of Yale Cabaret 51, Alma, by first-year playwright Benjamin Benne, directed by Cat Rodriguez, intervenes subtly into the national discourse about immigration. On the surface, it’s about a mother and daughter experiencing crossed purposes and escalating anxieties about the daughter, Angel (Ciara Monique McMillian), scoring high enough on her SATs to get into USC, but that’s not the whole story. It’s also about Alma (Ilia Isorelýs Paulino) worrying about whether or not she will be deported when her daughter turns 21. The context of these concerns—as we are alerted by what seems a haunted TV demonically tuned to FOX and a certain blustering, bigoted presidential candidate—is the U.S. government’s efforts to deport the undocumented.

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Benne’s play—a bit like Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls earlier this season—takes what might simply be a charming genre piece about teen life and layers it with the meanings that political reality imposes on normal lives. Every teen, we might say, has enough to worry about when trying to get into college, but here a “catch-22” situation ratchets up the tension: when she turns 21, Angel will be old enough to sponsor Alma, but when Angel turns 21 she will no longer need a parent or guardian, by the rationale of the courts.

The way these issues come to light is handled subtly, and often comically, as the fractiousness of the two women is placed front and center. In a small, homey apartment that graces the Cab stage, Alma treats her daughter both solicitously and domineeringly. She arrives while Angel is out and there’s a dodging of certain issues—where has Angel been, and has she been studying or drinking?—and even an outburst in which Alma wields a flipflop the way some parents wield belts. Paulino, who can be very imposing with a voice that commands attention, delivers as well Paulino’s fragile side, and, notably, her willingness to manipulate her daughter through every emotion possible. She’s a livewire, at times incandescent.

Angel, for her part, gives as good as she gets. She has not been eating well or wisely and at one point barely makes it to the bathroom before she begins puking. She’s then willing to work the pathetic sickie for all its worth, sucking on a frozen pop. Later, after incurring sufficient wrath for the dreaded la chancla, she brings out a plush elephant to curry favor. McMillian has been the angel of the Cab this year with three remarkable performances, beginning with The Purple Flower at the start of the season and concluding with back-to-back shows in weeks seventeen and eighteen.

The play’s dramatic peak arrives with a sudden spike in alarm. While Trump blusters in increasing volume, Alma wails with a power some might reserve for watching an execution. The lights go out and a knock comes upon the door that feels like it has the full force of the most malevolent of ICE agents behind it. To live in fear of that knock is never to experience the “land of the free.” But watching Alma and Angel we are certainly in the home of the brave.

Benne knows how to serve up the sweet, the savory and the bitter, blending the flavors of real family life well to give us a full meal, depicting the bond of love under duress.

Director Rodríguez, who has been a vocal supporter of the anti-deportation defense of Nelson Pinos—living in sanctuary at New Haven’s First and Summerfield Methodist Church since November 2017—hopes the play can be restaged after Nelson’s day in court in Minneapolis in May. For information about Pinos, go here, and for helping with his legal defense costs, go here.

With this production, its eighteenth, Yale Cabaret 51 ends, concluding a season of engaged theater—“cultivating surprise, embracing divergence, and practicing compassion.” Congratulations to Co-Artistic Directors Molly FitzMaurice and Latiana “LT” Gourzong and Managing Director Armando Huipe for an inspiring season well done. The team for Yale Cabaret 52 was announced at the shows last week and will consist of Co-Artistic Directors Zachry J. Bailey, Brandon Burton, and Alex Vermillion, with Managing Director Jaime Totti.

 

Alma
By Benjamin Benne
Directed by Catherine María Rodríguez

Producer: Eliza Orleans; Scenic Designer: Elsa GibsonBraden; Costume Designer: Phuong Nguyen; Lighting & Projection Designer: Samuel Kwan Chi Chan; Sound Designer: Marisa Areliano; Technical Director: Jenna Hoo; Stage Manager: Zachry J. Bailey

Cast: Ciara Monique McMillian, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino

Yale Cabaret
April 25-27, 2019