Guest Columns


Helen Thorpe’s Just Like Us was compelling as a book — as theater, not so much

The Colorado Statesman

When the Denver Center Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Kent Thompson approached Helen Thorpe about adapting her book for the stage, I’m sure it felt like a good idea. The book had done well for a non-fiction report on the dilemmas created by America’s dysfunctional immigration policies. The author was married to the Governor and a Denver audience would be familiar with the outlines of her tale about four Latina women approaching high school graduation and intent on acquiring college degrees. The prize-winning dramatist Karen Zacarias, whose Mariela in the Desert was produced to excellent reviews at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in 2010, was available to craft the script. What could go wrong?

JUST LIKE US by Karen Zacarias from the book by Helen Thorpe. Directed by Kent Thompson. Playing through Nov. 3 at the Denver Center’s Stage Theatre. Tickets at 303-893-4100.

Plenty, it turns out. While the production offers entertaining, even compelling moments, it fails as theater. Just Like Us serves up an unceasing political jeremiad that smacks of something delivered from a Soviet Writer’s workshop. Unfortunately, as agitprop, it fails to provide the emotional punch of Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty. The decision to include Thorpe as a character within the play permits Zacarias to have her serve the function of a Greek Chorus, advancing the plot and clarifying motives and history. Mary Bacon captures both the look and feel of Thorpe, the writer. Shortly after her book appeared I had the chance to tell her how much I enjoyed it. She asked whether I had been put off, as a male reader, by the lengthy recounting of the girls preparation for their prom night — make up, hairpieces and more. To the contrary, I told her it was rather fascinating.

The cast in the Denver Center Theatre Company’s world premiere production of Just Like Us.
Photo by Jennifer M Koskinen/The Colorado Statesman

The play opens on this senior prom night. Four girls, two undocumented and two who are American citizens, are best friends, working together to make sure they all look their best. It becomes apparent they all aspire to attend college, but the sad statistic that more than half of Hispanic students in Denver fail to graduate from high school is glassed over. This is an exceptional group. A supportive teacher delivers boutonnières for their dates, and parents chatter in Spanish. If you don’t understand these interludes, you miss out on much of the humor. Marisela’s dad wants to drive her to the dance and back because he “understands boys.” She is an “illegal” who envies the pair of documented girls who receive Daniels scholarships. Eventually, they all receive assistance and three of them room together at Denver University.

Yunuen Pardo, Adriana Gaviria, Cynthia Bastidas and Ruth Livier are an attractive ensemble that charms the audience. It takes a real curmudgeon to believe these young women, who arrived in the U. S. as children and then graduated with honors from our public schools, should be deported to a country they barely know. Nonetheless, Zacarias has spliced in several scenes featuring Tom Tancredo and his virulent brand of nativism. There is a snarky humor in the decision that Thompson made to have a Latino actor appear as the Congressman. Federico Peña also makes a cameo appearance at Denver’s 2006 May Day Rally for immigrant rights and the Dream Act, where Marisela also speaks. No chance is missed to drive home the message that these are American girls (yes, they even play the song). But, after a while, the message begins to sound like a ball peen hammer striking a trash can lid. Yes, you get it — you understand!

Time is also taken to explore the killing of Denver policeman Donny Young by an illegal dishwasher working at then-Mayor John Hickenlooper’s Cherry Cricket. Raul Gomez-Garcia was hired by the blind trust that operated his restaurants. Gomez-Garcia provided forged identity papers and is now serving a lengthy term in a Colorado prison, but his crime makes acceptance that much harder for the law-abiding immigrants who staff our restaurants, lay our bricks and clean our houses. George Bernard Shaw did a much better job of confronting questions of class and social conflict in his plays by telling the story of families. In that sense Just Like Us falls short. Although Marisela marries her high school sweetheart at the end, we are left curious to know where and what each of these women is doing today.

Helen Thorpe stands on stage and could certainly tell us. I even thought they might introduce one or more of these girls on opening night. The house had been papered with every Hispanic mover and shaker in town. It would have been a bring down the house moment for an audience that was in 100 percent agreement with Thorpe’s argument. As Donny Young’s widow observes, immigration remains “messy.” If Congress ever gets around to resolving this mess, Just Like Us will have provided one more small push towards sanity.

Colorado Statesman columnist Miller Hudson has been reviewing theater performances in Denver off and on for 30 or so years in addition to penning commentaries on Colorado’s political scene. He can be reached at