As we sat in the Wells-Metz Theatre, awaiting the opening performance of IU Theatre’s production of “Occupants,” my friend asked me what the play is about. I told her all I knew of it, which was that it has something to do with the Occupy Wall Street movement.
We spent the next few minutes discussing the Occupy Wall Street activities of 2011 and 2012, in Manhattan and across the nation. The most puzzling question that came up was this one: “Did it change anything?”
“Occupants” is one of the two plays produced in this season’s “At First Sight” repertory of new plays. Every year, IU Theatre produces full-length plays written by the department’s MFA Playwriting students.
Mauricio Miranda, now in his third year of the playwriting program at IU, is the author of “Occupants.” IU Theatre regulars may remember “American Asteroid,” Miranda’s gritty and twisted contribution to last year’s “At First Sight” series.
“Occupants” is the story of Gabi, a 19-year-old Peruvian-American kickboxer living in New York City. She shares a small abode with her mother, Alma, who never goes outside.
Without exception, Alma secures her door with seven locks at the stroke of midnight. Gabi ridicules her mother’s obsession with safety.
Having been banned from the YMCA for fighting (outside the ring), Gabi spends her time in the streets of the city with her sketchy “business associate” Marquez. Marquez is engineering a scheme to collect insurance money through a staged auto accident.
During one of Marquez and Gabi’s escapades, Gabi hands her sneakers over to a local homeless man nicknamed Shoeless (for obvious reasons). When Alma finds out that Gabi’s shoes are gone, she demands that Gabi get them back.
This leads Gabi and Marquez to search for Shoeless where he said he was headed: the newly formed Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park.
The protesters are alien to Marquez, who frequently declares that the dumbest thing a person can do is “grow a conscience.” Gabi’s initial antipathy to the protesters soon subsides when she hits it off with Sienna, a passionate occupier with a background quite different from Gabi’s. Much to the dismay of Marquez, Gabi becomes wrapped up in the movement, abandoning the planned insurance scam.
Gabi’s involvement in Occupy Wall Street is troubling to Alma, who is wary of any hint of proletarian uprising. Alma grew up in Peru during the internal conflict of the 1980s and ’90s.
In that conflict, countless violent atrocities were committed by the Peruvian military and by Sendero Luminoso (or the Shining Path), a terrorist group that ravaged rural Peru under the guise of Maoism.
Alma was the victim of horrendous violence at the hands of Sendero Luminoso. Thousands of miles away and years after the height of the conflict, Alma still lives in constant fear.
Kristen Alesia is endlessly likeable in the starring role of Gabi. Gabi is a fighter in more ways than one; her heroism and authenticity invite us to root for her success, but she is a life-size protagonist, not a superhuman.
The very challenging role of Alma is filled by Tara Chiusano. Alma carries a immense amount of baggage from her past, and Chiusano hauls this baggage through the play dutifully.
Thanks to Horwitz’s direction and, of course, the actors themselves, there are no weak performances in “Occupants.” Ashley Dillard’s portrayal of Sienna (a leading protester) conceals malice and ignorance under a bright, shining exterior. Cameron Mullin movingly plays La Chichi, a headstrong prostitute with emotional baggage of her own.
The characters of “Occupants” all come from radically different backgrounds, but a genuine grasp of their struggles is evident in Miranda’s writing. In a way, “Occupants” is a story of how humans with diverse histories and attitudes come to understand each other.
Miranda himself has sculpted “Occupants” with knowledge and experience from two continents. The playwright grew up in Peru before coming to the United States for school. Miranda was a resident of New York City during the Occupy Wall Street movement.
“Occupants” compelled me to return to my friend’s question of what, if anything, the Occupy movement changed. Miranda’s play exposes many facets of the movement. We see white, middle-class college graduates disrespecting the homeless, ignoring the rape of a protester and exploiting struggles they have never known.
But the movement was born out of resistance to staggering inequality. Even if the movement did not end in the overthrow of Wall Street power, it seems that a conversation was started. “Occupants” continues that conversation in an entertaining, touching and fascinating way.
Reprinted with permission from The Herald Times. See the original review here.