Detained in the Desert, now at La Jolla Playhouse, revives “agitprop” theater of the ’60s.
  • Detained in the Desert, now at La Jolla Playhouse, revives “agitprop” theater of the ’60s.
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It’s always a relief when license plates with Saguaro cacti exodus east this time of year. Our roads thin out, like arteries purged of cholesterol. But Teatro Mascara Magica’s staging a play all Zonies should see — and everyone else.

The first two scenes of Josephina Lopez’s Detained in the Desert are so unsubtle you wonder when the real play will arrive. “I’m a patriot, not a racist,” spews Arizona’s hate-talk radio jock Lou Becker. He encourages callers to co-spew drivel about “illegals” on the air and do far worse at the border. He interviews Enrique (the role based on Enrique Morones, founder of the nonprofit Border Angels). Lou utters one verbal hate crime after another, then goes deaf when Enrique says, “Every day we don’t have immigration reform, two people die.”

Scene two: young Latinos in a convertible. Sandra and Will get lost not far from the Arizona border. They’ve been dating for six months but don’t know their real names. The cop who stops them knows even less. Convinced they’re “illegals” by looks alone, he demands her documents. Sandra lifts off: she’s a native-born American and doesn’t have to show any “stinking badges!” We next see her in an orange jumpsuit and a prison cell.

In a brief talk before opening night curtain, director Bill Virchis defined “teatro” as a “theater of the people, of the mind” that presents “the relevant issues of the day” as in a “conversation.” Detained also has similarities to “agitprop” — the “agitation and propaganda” theater of the ’60s, where X was stardust and golden, and Y mewling and puking evil.

Detained begins like agitprop. It presents a “what are these people” attitude, not a “who.” Then the real play shows up, and the surface slips away. Lopez has a knack for making original impressions sprout in unexpected ways.

There’s always more. Becker’s radio station, for example, is KRZT 1070. Arizona’s notorious anti-immigration law is SB 1070, which permits racial profiling based on how a person looks or “sounds.”

When the cop stops Sandra, he sees a racial template. He never learns that she was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley; she has a college degree and doesn’t even speak Spanish. To blend in with gringo classmates, she changed her name to “Sandy.”

Will, it turns out, is Canadian. He didn’t bring his Visa. Fortunately the cop doesn’t check. If he did, Will would be queuing up on the Arizona border at sundown, waiting to cross the Sonoran Desert in hotplate heat.

So, an “entitled” Latina and a hired-gun talk-show host making gobs of loot from xenophobic rant. The cop racially profiles her. But just a sec: mightn’t we have profiled the slice of fascist bacon behind the mic as well?

Lou has a backstory. And the desert where he, like Sandra, becomes “detained,” burns it out of him.

Since he became Artistic Director of the La Jolla Playhouse, Christopher Ashley has introduced one innovative program after another: Without Walls (a three-day festival begins October 3); and the Resident Theatre Program, which provides a one-year base for “up and coming” — and often “homeless” — companies, has earned national praise.

This season’s recipient, Teatro Mascara Magica, stages Detained with an 18-person cast. The opening night had some expected jitters, and the acting varied in quality, at first. But as the play grew, and the themes took over, so did the performances.

John Iacovelli’s ingenious set facilitates the playwright’s film-like approach. Somehow he suggests both walls (rusty, corrugated tin) and emptiness. At first, the covered lights overhead have a fiesta-like quality, until you realize they’re the white plastic, gallon jugs the Border Angels fill with water and leave at key points in the desert for the thirsty.

Skulls on the ground and two Dia de Los Muertos living skeletons creeping here and there combine realistic and mythical elements.

Though he starts a mite over-the-top, spreading hate with broad funhouse smears, Charles Maze runs an emotional gambit as the DJ Lou Becker — and a physical one, since he undergoes a searing, and believable, humiliation.

In her first scenes, Alix Mendoza was too tentative as Sandy. Mendoza hit stride once “Sandy” learned how it felt to be “Sandra.” Dave Rivas — always a delight as “Cholo-Satan” in TMM’s hugely popular Christmas show, La Pastorela — gives Enrique, the Border Angel, a well-deserved dignity.

If the playwright’s name isn’t familiar, her first full play might be: Real Women Have Curves, produced at the Rep in 1994. San Diego, in fact, is currently having an unofficial, Josefina Lopez Festival. Along with Detained in the Desert at La Jolla, beginning September 13, OnStage Playhouse will premiere Logan Heights. It’s about a place that “isn’t heaven, but it’s my home.”

Detained in the Desert

Detained in the Desert, by Josefina Lopez

Teatro Mascara Magica, La Jolla Playhouse, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla

Directed by William Virchis, cast: Charles Maze, Michael Adler, Steven Jensen, Dave Rivas, Alix Mendoza, Victor Santander, Greg McAfee, Andre Gonzales, Roman Reyes, Jennifer Santander, Brenda Marie Toledo, Amanda O’Ruairc, Vanessa Mendoza, Jose Herrera, Christina Murguia, Elisa Gonzales, Isabela Leon, Zayra Nicifore; scenic design, John Iacovelli; costumes, Pamela Travo; lighting, Tammy Ray; sound, Dave Rivas

Playing through September 15: Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 2:00 p.m.

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Jeff Smith Sept. 5, 2013 @ 1:26 p.m.

MORE LIKE THIS: Carey McWilliams, North From Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking People of the United States(New York, 1948). Kevin R. Johnson, The 'Huddled Masses' Myth: Immigration and Civil Rights (Philadelphia, 2004). Richard Griswold del Castillo, ed., Chicano San Diego: Cultural Space and the Struggle for Justice (Tucson, 2007).

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