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‘Jornalero’ details lives of day laborers

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From left, Paul Rodrigues, Jose Rodriguez, Benoît Monin, Cristhian Ayvar and Juan J. Berumen are excellent in Ubuntu Theater Project’s “American Jornalero” onstage at a West Oakland warehouse. (Courtesy Simone Finney)

Although some plot points in playwright Ed Cardona Jr.’s “American Jornalero” lack credibility, the play about the working lives — or lack thereof — of immigrants in the U.S. is nonetheless relevant and engaging.

Smart and scrappy Ubuntu Theater Project’s West Coast premiere of the 2012 show, which is set on a New York street in the mid-2000s, is especially atmospheric.

Director and set designer Tioni Collins’ clever staging, outdoors on the grounds of a West Oakland warehouse, adds punch to the proceedings, the chill and moisture in the air on a recent evening evoking a real-life scenario. (Note: The audience was offered blankets and hot beverages opening weekend.)

And the way the four Spanish-speaking day laborers (“jornaleros”) — Marcelo (Cristhian Ayvar), Luis (Jose Rodriguez), Michigan (Juan J. Berumen) and Montezuma (Benoît Monin) — hang around, hoping to snag a job of seemingly any sort, also feels quite real.

When they say, “We haven’t worked in over a week” and call “cheap labor here” as cars drive by (catchy sound design by Avery Martin), their pain and predicament are evident. Yet they leave after no opportunities arise.

Things heat up when two white guys with not-so-good intentions enter the picture: Toby (Ted Zoldan) and Mark (Paul Rodrigues) close a hole in a chain link fence that provides easy access to the favored waiting area, and the more assured, intense Toby, stays briefly, instructing Mark to harass the laborers when they come back.

“If we could kick them out with baseball bats, we would,” he says, leaving Mark to “make sure they know we’re watching for them.”

Mark’s motivations are slightly less clear. He strikes up not-quite cordial conversations with them as they return, accusing them of taking away his work. But he also helps them.

Believably, not much happens at first. But after a fight involving pepper spray breaks out, and when Marcelo finally receives a call on a pay phone from his sweetheart he’s anxiously awaited, the resolution feels flimsy.

Still, the political and social issues at hand in “American Jornalero” are clear in the effective production, which showcases energetic actors and Ubuntu’s committed crew.

REVIEW

American Jornalero
Presented by Ubuntu Theater Project
Where: 2000 Mandela Parkway, Oakland
When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, except 2 p.m. May 6; closes May 6
Ticket: $15 to $45 (or pay what you can)
Contact: www.ubuntutheaterproject.com

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