Maria, Full of Grace

Brown Baby. At UCSB Performing Arts Theatre. Shows through February 25

What is the right thing to do? This question is at the heart of Brown Baby, a politically charged new play which opened last weekend at UCSB’s Performing Arts Theatre. Written by Gaucho faculty member Carlos Morton, Baby shows ambition in tackling the issues of immigration, baby smuggling, and Third World police corruption. Thought-provoking and engaging, it’s part humanitarian effort, part drama. We open with Maria (played by Victoria Ramos), a widow and mother being chased through the Arizona desert by the border patrol. She is captured and brought to the INS, recounting her escape from Oaxaca and her perilous journey to the U.S. Listening is Agent Perez (played by Carlos Orlando Penuela), who takes an interest — both personal and professional — in the illegal Mexican alien. It is in this interaction that the characters begin to question what is correct. Is Perez right in upholding the law, although he feels sympathy for Maria’s plight? Is Maria right for wanting to stay in the U.S., although what brings her to San Diego is an illegal adoption scam in which her “brown baby” is a pawn? Is the yuppie woman who unwittingly adopts the stolen infant correct in her desire to see justice upheld? Baby never quite fleshes out its main players. Morton tackles heavy subject matter in this play, but neglects character development. While intriguing, the men and women of Brown Baby are one-dimensional — we know what they’re going to say, and what they’re going to do. Thus, the drama is predictable. All four white characters are written as caricatures — the white husband is naive when he sings his new brown son to sleep with “La Cucaracha” in an attempt to make him feel more at home, and the cowboy INS officer is a racist buffoon. The actors, students in UCSB’s drama department, are terrific. The superb Ramos accomplishes a difficult task, convincing us of Maria’s simultaneous outer desperation and inner strength. Penuela’s INS agent exudes the unfazed confidence of a man who’s seen it all, while Lacey Dwyer Morris and Alex Knox infuse much-needed life into the underdeveloped adoptive yuppie couple. The sets and costumes take us from small-town Mexico to Tijuana and San Diego, and they’re nicely done. Considering the Performing Arts Theatre’s small size and budget, that’s a feat in itself.

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