This season marks the inaugural year of Next Door at NYTW, an acronym that stands for New York Theatre Workshop. As the moniker suggests, this venerable off-Broadway institution recently opened another black-box theatre — where else — next door to their longtime hub in the East Village.
Despite the fact that NYTW always produces some of the edgiest, most innovative, socially-relevant, and flat-out finest work in New York City, there’s been very little critical fanfare regarding their newest theatrical enterprise, which premiered with the return engagement of Ghost Quartet by composer Dave Malloy (famous for his Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 score).
Full disclosure: even though I see almost everything presented on New York’s major stages — which anything NYTW is involved with would be considered — the lack of attention paid to The Elephant in the Room, Next Door’s second outing, made it fall through my cracks. But this omission only instilled in me that much more curiosity to check out De Novo, the third entry, to figure out what the hell this burgeoning series would turn out to be.
The answer: more of the same for NYTW, which means anything but the same old shit you’re accustomed to seeing elsewhere. Much like with Ghost Quartet, De Novo was a pre-existing production (both previously played at other New York theatres) by Houses on the Moon Theater Company that NYTW invited to be remounted and further developed using their increased resources. And that will be Next Door’s focus: to provide artists with additional physical and financial space to share their work with NYTW’s passionate and voluminous fanbase for one-month runs.
Even though NYTW is not as involved in the process as they are for their own shows, if De Novo is a sign of what’s to come, Next Door will offer the same sort of dynamic, challenging, and politically-minded art. It’s a documentary play that documents the experience of undocumented juvenile aliens through the true-life story of Edgar Chocoy-Guzman; the text is exclusively comprised of excerpts edited together from his immigration court transcripts, interviews, letters, emails and other legal documents. The cast of four largely lack performative sensibilities — anchored by Manny Eureña’s empathetically stripped-to-the-bone lead turn as Chocoy-Gusman, a kid stuck in America’s un-empathetic immigration system — mirroring the raw humanity captured in the recorded words.
Despite this more minimalist approach, writer and director Jeffrey Solomon still finds ways to deploy the strength of theatrical storytelling to relay this hot-button tale. For instance, retaining the original language of the real people — often requiring others on stage to translate — reinforces the linguistic alienation perpetuated by an English-driven judicial process; subtitles in a documentary simply wouldn’t convey the same level of doubt regarding what’s exactly lost in translation. In perhaps the most powerful example of theatrically-symbolic storytelling, the bars that first act as a jail cell eventually become percussive instruments bellowing out the bangs of fatal gun shots that are a result of the prior imprisonment. In the end, these same rods sound like church bells honoring the many fallen dead courtesy of American “justice.”
The bodies of the subjects and viewers sharing the same space — the foundational bedrock of live theatre — amplifies the physical force of the narrative, one that chronicles how American courts reduce living and breathing immigrant bodies of color — people who have easily-comprehensible and sympathetic stories if you take the time to learn them — into mere names on a page that an admittedly overworked judge decides if they stay or go. The sheer number of these sorts of cases is imparted in the set design through the stacks and stacks and rows and rows of boxes that adorn the stage’s back wall, a nod to every judge’s overwhelming workload that comes with the highest stakes.
In this way, the creators exhibit an understanding of the complexities behind attaining perfect justice, while still indicting the often shallow and paranoiac character evaluations perpetuated by America’s treatment of immigrants. As the play unfolds, the audience comes to realize that all the aforementioned files are dedicated to the same solitary person, signifying the ridiculous legal battle facing any immigrant trying to forge a life for themselves in America after being forced to flee their homes. By the time these papers end up strewn over the stage, the visual metaphor is clear: Do we want these pages to reflect souls saved by America, or represent the carcasses of the deported?
Should America, in the name of national security, be a country that turns away innocents basically to die at the hands of the very pressures they tried to leave behind, or should we want to save every last one we can, even if it entails marginally decreasing the safety of citizens (which has been vastly overblown by Trump’s recklessly ignorant rhetoric)? Even if these juveniles have criminal records, they’re children who — as the play deftly communicates — often rely on gangs for communality that could be — but isn’t — provided by local government initiatives. Should America be a country that believes in progress and personal growth and forgiveness, or is there no room for sympathy and understanding for the impossible situations of others — much of which are created by America’s actions, or lack thereof — both here and abroad?
To the play’s credit, it doesn’t address these questions directly, which would’ve almost surely led to excessive polemics. But in implicitly posing such queries, De Novo continues New York Theatre Workshop’s mission of engaging with the most pressing issues plaguing America today.