black-sunday-timeline-theatre-chicago-review-dolores-diaz – Chicago Sun-Times

The dead animals stacked and strewn throughout Chicago playwright Dolores Díaz’ “Black Sunday” tell a grim story of human folly.

TimeLine Theatre’s final production in its East Lake View home of 25 years (the award-winning company expects to make its long-planned move to more spacious digs in Uptown by the start of next season) unfolds in early April 1935. Díaz sets her 90-minute drama deep in the heart of the Dust Bowl. On a small Texas farm devastated by drought, locusts and over-farming, “Black Sunday” explores two intertwined issues blazing with contemporary relevance: Climate change and immigration policy.

Directed by Helen Young, “Black Sunday” is punctuated by powerful moments, but suffers overall from thin characters and a disjointed plot, delivering a jagged series of vignettes centered on a farm in foreclosure and a Mexican-American farm hand who fled Los Angeles after his family was rounded up in an immigration raid.

Once wheat farmers, Ma (Mechelle Moe), Pa (David Parkes) and their daughter Sunny (Angela Morris) are now slowly starving on Texas land as arid and fallow as ash. Ma is plagued by night terrors and visions of black skies and dead animals. Sunny dreams of escaping, perhaps by marrying Jimmy, the local preacher (Vic Kuligoski). Pa is determined to revive his land, even though his farming tools are now of little use except to bludgeon to death chicken-killing coyotes and scavenging rabbits.

For recent farm arrival Jesus (Christopher Alvarenga), the ravages of drought and dust compound the cruelty of the aforementioned raid, a real event that unfolded on February 26, 1931. On that day, roughly 400 Mexican-Americans and migrant workers had gathered in La Placita park in Los Angeles to socialize after church. They were surrounded by immigration officials, and hundreds were immediately and forcibly deported to Mexico. Among those herded onto buses and sent south were naturalized and U.S.-born citizens, many of whom had never set foot in Mexico.

Díaz draws a bold-faced link between the immigration policies of the 1930s and today. She also draws a vivid line between today’s climate crisis and the drama’s titular catastrophe, which occurred on April 13, 1935, and named for the massive dust storm that roared through the plains, turning the sky black from the Texas panhandle to Idaho.

The characters are more symbolic than authentic, but their dialogue intermittently evokes images as stark and indelible as the photographs of Dorothea Lange. In one memorable scene, Ma laments that Sunny has only ever known a world of sepia; blue skies and verdant greens are not even a memory for the young woman.

As Ma and Sunny dream of moving to California, Pa exists near the edge of sanity. Rage is his dominant emotion, and Parkes wields it like an anvil whether Pa is striking out at starving coyotes, swarms of locusts or his own family. Sunny, meanwhile, embodies the spark of optimism inherent to her name.

Jesus is near the heart of “Black Sunday,” with Alvarenga instilling him with a savvy determination borne of a secret survival plan that not even the choking winds can snuff.

Less effective is Preacher Jimmy. He feels extraneous, a character shoe-horned into a story he’s really part of.

“Black Sunday” is enhanced by set designer Joe Schermoly’s dun-colored shack of a home, its decrepit wooden roof and broken fence posts calling to mind blackened, rotting teeth. Christine Pascual’s costumes are stark reminders of extreme loss. From filthy, worn-out slips to patched dungarees, the garments evoke weariness and impoverishment.

Young leans heavily on Anthony Churchill’s intermittently effective projection design to convey the destitution. The swarming locusts will make your skin crawl, but the dust storms are so grainy they evoke a malfunctioning television more than anything else.

Finally, Young’s blocking is sometimes frustrating. If you’re seated behind the ancient (seeming) stove where Ma boils locusts, the appliance will occasionally block your view of the action.

There’s potential in “Black Sunday” no question. But as is, the production provides flashes of insight and drama rather than really digging into the bleak, essential history it illuminates.

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