Spotlight: Esperanza Rising

Rob Levine

In this world premiere by Lynne Alvarez, adapted from a book by Pam Muñoz Ryan, 12-year-old Esperanza (Erin Nicole Hampe) is a petulant, sheltered rancher's daughter in 1930s Mexico. Things sour on her birthday when bandits kill her father. Esperanza's options dwindle to traveling with her former servants to live in a California agricultural labor camp. Director Rebecca Lynn Brown's cast brings out the story's textures of suffering mixed with small moments of sweetness. The scenic design and lighting, by Riccardo Hernández and Matt Frey, present undulating landscapes, with the dusky blue of the open sky and the fiery orange of morning. Along with the huge mural backing the action in Act II, which leads the eye to the infinity point of a road disappearing into the horizon, the design of this show almost eerily evokes the atmosphere of outdoor space. This is the realm where Esperanza finds herself, as she adapts to her new life. The script deserves ample credit for not softening the edges of farm workers' lives--one subplot even dives into the complexities of labor politics. Likewise, Hampe holds her own with a difficult and conflicted character who is forced to grow up at light speed. And Esperanza's exchanges with onetime servant Miguel (Desmin Borges, with a strong sense of thwarted idealism and good-guy conviction) are among the best of the night. Ultimately, Esperanza delivers a happy ending that is fleeting and ambiguous, tinged with the knowledge that the characters will continue to live in a world where "white is the color of money, brown is the color of work." Leaving them at what might be their happiest moment adds much to the poignancy of this fine new work, as does its timing in our current political moment, when the little girl's real-world descendents are battling for the same acceptance in their quest for work and a better life.

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