American Side Efectos is a solo performance piece written and performed by Debbie Baños, which tells the story of Debbie’s mother, an immigrant to the United States from El Salvador, and her painful, years-long fight within the immigration system to become a US citizen. While the subject matter could easily set a dark tone, Debbie infuses the proceedings with enough humor, heart, and warmth that American Side Efectos serves as both a loving portrait of the Baños family and a scathing indictment of institutionalized racism.
The show’s set is deliberately straightforward, with only a few simple set pieces placed across the stage, all of which Debbie interacts with at some point. I have complained before about solo performance that is overproduced or extravagant, and this show understands the fundamental appeal of the form; that is, that solo performance is all about knocking down the fourth wall, stripping away the normal artifice of theatre, and speaking directly to the audience.
Because the story takes place during Debbie’s childhood, she purposefully draws humor from her kid self’s ignorance of her mother’s situation. Very serious turns of plot are contrasted by young Debbie’s clueless jokes or complaints, leading to lots of laugh-out-loud moments that give the show both an upbeat vibe and a masterful sense of dramatic irony. The result is that the show’s 60-minute runtime flies by, as the audience is expertly tossed between laughter and suspense.
Importantly, the humor never undermines the family’s struggle. In fact, another major source of humor is the racism of the white people in the small Arkansas town where Debbie grew up. As she dons multiple hats and coats to represent different people, Debbie slips into a variety of southern accents with ease, giving us clear pictures of who we’re dealing with. Even well-meaning white characters have their fair share of stumbles. In this way, the audience is invited both to get angry at the injustice, and to laugh at the ridiculous racists — as well as examine their own racism they might perpetuate through seemingly harmless comments.
But most of all, American Side Efectos is a show about patriotism; the fact that the performance will run over Fourth of July weekend is not a coincidence. The show opens with Debbie’s mother expressing an enthusiastic patriotism and love for the United States — a sentiment that I recognize from stories of first-generation Jewish immigrants in my own family. Many immigrants to America form a sense of patriotism out of the stark contrast of their own life experience; after a life of war and violence in El Salvador, Mrs. Baños can only be grateful for the relative stability and safety provided by this new country.
But Debbie, with years of retrospect, cannot bring herself to be so optimistic. As she points out, the civil wars in El Salvador were instigated in part by the United States, which poured billions of dollars into military aid for government forces in the 1980’s. And throughout the show, the audience is made to experience the horrors and indignities of the US’s citizenship process for undocumented immigrants. It’s important to note that while these horrors were most visibly on display in the Trump administration, they have not gone away. American Side Efectos takes place during the Obama years — and President Biden, while he has ended some of the most horrifying Trump-era policies, has quietly kept a disturbing number of his predecessor’s changes in place. American Side Efectos smartly directs anger not at any one political figure, but at the system that relentlessly ground down the Baños family, causing unnecessary stress, grief, and suffering. And though this point is far from hopeful, there is hope infused into the portrayal. Often, intellectual optimism is not so useful as a searing expression of deeply felt humanity.
As a closing note, this was my first in-person theatre experience in a post-quarantine world, and I could not have asked for a better welcome back. American Side Efectos is at turns angering, hilarious, and moving. It makes you think about enormous societal woes, and it makes you think about tiny interpersonal struggles, and it connects the two seamlessly. As theatre begins to open up again, I cannot think of a better encapsulation of what good theatre is supposed to do.
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