Gary Soto Urges Us to Reflect
by Patricia L. Morin
As a therapist who ran a suicide hot-line, I have talked to teens who cut themselves, then heal, and cut again. In Gary Soto’s play, The Afterlife,” Crystal (engaging Bianca Catalan), daughter of wealthy almond growers, begins to “cut” herself. And another schoolmate gets stabbed to death.
S.F. Youth Theatre’s video of Soto’s acclaimed play lets us look back on what happened.
In “The Afterlife,” poet and novelist Soto probes suicide and murder in California Latinx culture. Teenager Crystal laments, “No bandage is long enough to heal my hurt.” When USC turns down her application for college, she clings to the death pills in her back pocket.
Crystal falls into the black hole of hopelessness, like many teens. Her only friends are Selfies. Her favored song, Marina’s “Numb,” expresses her inability to feel. Music Directors George Brooks and Silvia Matheus use chimes, piano, then soft strings and songs to enhance the intricate emotions.
After Crystal talks with homeless, streetwise Virginia (dynamic Dyana Díaz), she feels no relief. We are touched by Soto’s poetic words, as Crystal makes her final decision: “. . . falling leaves . . . the end of something, the time to sleep.” Crystal gobbles the pills, rolls up in a ball and dies–without ever having a chance to live.
Another high school teen, Chuy (delightful Alexander Pieb), has friends, sports, a date, and love. But he is murdered. An off-handed compliment to Yellowshoes (streetwise Fabian Bravo) leads to Chuy’s violent stabbing. Soto brings us to the streets where teens are easily victimized by those vying for a place in a gang. We feel the harsh reality the Latinx teens suffer, and how those feelings ripple through their tightly-knit community.
Sitting alone, watching on a screen, I miss the communal feelings that hang in the air in the theater or in the community.
Soto ushers us into the Afterlife, a light-filled ante-room where the teens reflect on lives never lived. Chuy awakens in front of a lovely wooden, cartoon-style tree—thanks to Set Designer Jon Ramirez’s creative Tree of Life. Chuy realizes he is dead, as a soft breeze nudges him over to two small stages, where he can visit his short life.
He lands home where his mother (multi-talented Díaz) mourns his pointless death with his Uncle (Homera Rosas), and best friend Vato (Homar Sanchez). He feels their love, and what he will miss. He mystically dances a promised dance with his girlfriend Rachel (versatile Zoe Chien), in a touching moment.
Chuy almost trips over Crystal’s body as she awakens beneath the Tree of Life. When he discovers how she died, he angrily bursts out: “I was robbed of my life, and you gave yours away!” A magic breeze carries them to Chuy’s anger-filled home, where his mother harbors hate and a gun. Soto reflects on the tragic cycle that continues in these close-knit communities.
I only wish that Soto could have explored more of Crystal’s background and family, and touched more on Latinx culture. Chuy and Crystal do fall in love in the Afterlife waiting room. They are trapped in floating pastel silk clouds symbolizing their love and loss, in a beautifully coordinated scene. Great direction throughout the video by Cliff Mayotte.
Crystal wishes later, upon reflection, that she had called the Suicide Prevention number she knew so well: 1.800.273.8255. We reflect on their lost lives along with Crystal and Chuy. They realize there is love to be had.
I hope depressed teens will watch “The Afterlife” and realize that people can understand their pain—and help them.
“The Afterlife” by Gary Soto, directed by Cliff Mayotte, by S.F. Youth Theatre—Streaming on line at S.F. Youth Theatre.
Cast: Fabian Bravo, Bianca Catalan, Zoe Chien, Dyana Díaz, Kevin Obando, Alexander Espinosa Pieb, Homera Rosa, and Homar Sanchez.
Banner photo: Fabian Bravo and Alexander Pieb
Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1.800.273.8255