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December 11, 2017
Review: De Novo
Photo credit: Russ Rowland

The truth hurts as they say and the devastating verbatim play De Novo, which is the inaugural production at New York Theatre Workshop’s newly renovated Fourth Street Theater, had me tearing up a bit -- actually, quite a lot. Fashioned from court transcripts, letters, and trial documents, the tragic life of Edgar Chocoy-Guzman is revealed to us by the magnificently talented group of actors who comprise the Houses on the Moon Theater Company.

The documentary-style play written and directed by Jeffrey Solomon runs a crisp 60 minutes (there was also a wonderful talk-back session afterward on the night I attended). During this brief span of time, we learn the story of a young -- very young -- man who is caught up in the U.S. justice system and put on trial for deportation back to Guatemala, where, to our horror, we discover that he will most certainly be murdered at the hands of members of his former gang.

The story of Edgar’s life, his coercion into gang-life and his eventual incarceration is told by four actors playing multiple roles. The complications of Edgar’s gang involvement and numerous arrests are exquisitely defined with detailed verbatim text or with minute changes in costume or attitude from the small company of players. At times, to expedite the action and change of character, the actors use simple signs hung around their necks (a tradition borrowed from the innovative work of Luis Valdez and El Teatro Campesino). Latin America's sense of history-through-storytelling pervades this work of art with remarkable authenticity.

Manny Urena plays Edgar Chocoy-Guzman, the young man on trial for deportation. Urena is a beautiful actor with an angelic presence that though soft-spoken at times, belies a life hardened on the streets of Guatemala and California’s inner cities. His lawyer, Kimberly Salinas played by Emily Joy Weiner, has a weary soulfulness that exudes a genuine concern for her client. We are the jury in this retelling, and Weiner pleads to us directly, frequently turning to us, her jury, to gauge our awareness of what Edgar would face in Guatemala; it’s an effective technique. Zuleyma Guevara cries real tears here, too; her work is deeply moving as Edgar’s mother and infuriatingly distant as his judge. That Guevara feels deeply (as we do) during the proceedings feels right in keeping with the play’s more tragic components. Camilo Almonacid gives a standout performance all around; his work blends beautifully with the documentary-styled script, as well as with the more presentational style associated with Teatro Campesino’s traditions. Its a device of theatricality that this compelling company uses to great advantage.

With the use of screens and projections, provided by Donna Decesare, Jeffrey Solomon’s direction is savvy and compassionate. Set design by Lawrence E. Moten III, lighting by Christina Watanabe and costumes by Genevieve V. Beller all help to convey the story with dignity and respect.

As members of the audience, and as members of the jury, we are asked to keep talking about young children like Edgar Chocoy-Guzman. We must tell the stories of their lives (and deaths) and turn a deaf ear to the stormy lies of tyrants. The U. S. Justice System and the leaders of our country will try to tell us these children, many of them escaping gang life, are not credible or valuable enough to save. Houses on the Moon Theater Company and its members have raised their voices in dissent. They have resisted tyranny and bureaucracy and you can too by bearing witness to this devastating and miraculous play.

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Written by: Bill Crouch
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