In our COVID age of online interconnectivity, it can be easy to lose sight of life outside our own separate quarantine bunkers. Indeed, when holidays spent socially distanced from our loved ones is not only acceptable but the morally correct thing to do, the human weight of many injustices regrettably become lost.
Leave it to a talent like Austin’s Jesús I. Valles to remind us that behind every hot button issue — such as the atrocities committed daily by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — there exist human lives, each with individual experiences, hopes, and traumas.
Revived as a live-streamed and pre-recorded showing last weekend in partnership with Teatro Audaz San Antonio, Valles’s poetic, and award-winning, solo show, “(Un)documents” is a performance so far reaching that it almost feels irresponsible to distill it down to a single logline. Broadly, “(Un)documents,” which premiered at the Vortex in 2018, is a reexamination of Valles’s own adolescence and also a story of the generational pain that politics can inflict.
Written largely in response to Valles’s brother’s deportation, the script takes the U.S. immigration system to task. We hear of young Jesús’s childhood perspective on citizenship as it’s shaped by both trauma and triumph — bittersweet recollections of learning to lie about citizenship as a grade-schooler in El Paso in order to protect the family, or a sexual awakening at odds with. a machismo culture.
Valles, who uses they/their pronouns, has an economic command of imagery conjuring metaphors of their body as a grave, a bilingual tongue as a vicious serpent, and sexuality as predestination. Their collected musings on a youth spent sidestepping both sides of the U.S./Mexico border paint chilling scenes, and the show puts a complex face to the experiences of those who are so often dismissed as “the other” in media.
As a performance experience, “(Un)Documents” is a theatrical roller coaster that traverses deep sorrows, fleeting joys, and righteous, white-hot anger to leave audiences equally exhilarated and pensive. Valles inspires empathy, sharing anecdotes as personal as hearing their brother cry over a dreamed-of baseball career lost, and as topical as teaching high school students how to survive an ICE raid.
The production’s emotional core rests squarely on its actor’s leave-nothing-behind performance. Valles’s early life feels legitimately relived on stage, every character-defining moment of fear, helplessness and self-discovery left intact.
Such a life journey feels understood on a cellular level by director Rudy Ramirez, who directed the original production. Only on my second viewing of the digital presentation did it become apparent how this Austin theater veteran’s purposeful blocking serves to guide Valles through their own memories. Effortless pacing allows Valles to embody each trial and tribulation as if it were the first time, and Ramirez’s apt orchestration acts as the thread connecting each emotional high to the next. Videographer Jose Lozano’s recording captured the spirit of Valles’s in-person performance.
While I’d still prefer to view “(Un)Documents” on stage, I’m also hard pressed to think of a moment where this online production felt flat compared to the live version. All’s to say, I’m left only more convinced that Valles’s debut solo performance may go down as one of Austin theater’s most important recent stagings.
Considering that Valles has revived the show numerous times locally and nationally, I’m left torn between my own selfish desire for the artist to keep staging “(Un)Documents,” and my other wish, which is to see this poet train their lens on new and equally raw subjects. (Full disclosure: a preview of Valles’s long-in-development sophomore effort, “BALA.FRUTA./BULLET.FRUIT.”, a similar collection of poetic musings on gun violence, made my annual list of theater highlights in 2019).
The topics covered in “(Un)Documents” remain as topical as they were in 2018. And there’s a unifying potential in Valles’s life story. I cannot recommend enough experiencing this emotional tour-de-force whenever and however it’s next staged.