Had director Michael Moore ambled into The Stage Theatre Thursday for the world premiere of Just Like Us, he might have muttered, “Man, that was a one-sided production.”
So goes Just Like Us, a relentlessly pro-amnesty polemic that buries its humor and humanity in a crush of talking points. And it’s a shame since the subject of smart Latina teens dealing with the ramifications of their parents’ actions is ripe for drama. We see glimpses of that potential in the two-plus hour production, but those moments are buried like lawn furniture in an Aspen blizzard.
It’s fitting that Just Like Us bowed in the Mile High City. Not only is the story set in Denver, but the play is based on a book by Helen Thorpe, the ex-wife of former Denver Mayor and current Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
The play, which runs through Nov. 4, follows four college-bound teens separated only by their documents. Two of the four aren’t legal U.S. citizens, and they’re learning their university dreams may be dashed by their lack of paper work. The actresses offer a vibrant look at the modern Latino experience, blending a natural affinity for American culture with values held over from their home country.
We watch them bond, fight and explore what it means to be living in the U.S. without the rights of their peers. It seeps into every aspect of their lives, from their future work prospects to the simple act of flying on an airplane.
In between we endure op-ed-speeches masquerading as conversations, watch the young women declare their right to citizenship and see a cartoonish version of illegal immigration opponent Tom Tancredo rail against people who aren’t of his race and background.
Mary Bacon plays Thorpe, a quasi-narrator and arguably the most complex character on the stage. The real Thorpe studied the four Latina women for years, and in the production her stand-in points out themes that should be dramatized, not dictated.
Show, don’t tell.
By the time a bumbling college student named Luke (Casey Predovic) enters, spouting ignorance about race, class and immigration 101, we know the fix is in on the debate. If that wasn’t obvious enough, the four teenagers dance to the Lenny Kravitz rock cover American Woman at their high school show.
Just Like Us could still cast a spell even if it has a thumb squarely on the scales in favor of unfettered immigration. The production boasts a sharp sense of humor, moments handled with crisp timing by the cast. But the play chooses ideological points over storytelling at far too many turns.
The second act finds a modicum of improvement, as those against illegal immigration get a better chance to speak their minds. The death of a Denver police officer by an illegal with a lengthy rap sheet reminds audiences of the stakes in play.
Near the end, the Thorpe figure engages with Marisela (Yunuen Pardo, a force to be reckoned with) about the teen’s life choices, a moment that packs more emotion and reality than much of what preceded it.
It’s too late, though. Just Like Us has already suggested those who take Tancredo’s side have hate in their hearts, and the play is less interested in storytelling than in hammering that unfair point home.