The northern Mexican border-city Ciudad Juárez is at the heart of Theater Mitu's latest production, JUÁREZ: A Documentary Mythology, which is coming to Abu Dhabi with five shows from March 7-10 at NYU Abu Dhabi’s Downtown Campus. Cd. Juárez, once a thriving border town and community, became known as the "Murder Capital of the World" in 2009 due to intense violence, poverty, and corruption that took hold of the city as it became one of the crossroads in the US-Mexico drug war. Meanwhile, its sister city immediately across the border — El Paso, Texas — is known as the “Safest City in America.”
JUÁREZ: A Documentary Mythology tells a story of hope and survival; conflict and fear; in a place where the community is striving to maintain its identity against unchecked progress and change. The show’s director, NYUAD Theater Program Director and Theater Mitu Artistic Director Rubén Polendo, was inspired to create the piece by his own experience of growing up in Cd. Juárez and witnessing from afar the border-town’s transformation as it became ravaged by drug-related violence.
“It became imperative for me to investigate and map out this situation — not as a news story, but as something the community is going through,” Polendo explained. “This show, rather than being a play or something birthed from imagination, has been created through interviews that have been conducted over the past three years.”
The production, which combines journalistic investigation and artistic storytelling, features a collection of interviews with the people of Cd. Juárez and El Paso from a range of socio-economic backgrounds — everyone from politicians and shop owners, to people on the street — conducted by the very actors that portray the characters. The role of the actors as researchers enabled them to witness firsthand the realities of the place and its inhabitants, giving the production an authentic form of expression.
“This approach incorporates the historical and the emotional through a new kind of engagement for the actor, who serves not only as a performer, but as an archive in a way,” Polendo explained. “The stories are within them and are being released throughout the show.”
The piece — which is organized into themed chapters of Memory, Violence, and Change — breaks away from the conventional direct address form commonly used in documentary-based theater, instead aiming to create an emotional and artistic map for the audience.
“Instead of a monologue form, we thought about this more as a visual art installation,” Polendo said. “Unlike a film, we can’t show you what Cd. Juárez looked like, but we can show you what it felt like.”
Actor-researcher, and NYUAD Professor, Aysan Çelik said that despite facing intense hardship, many of the people interviewed were eager to point out the positive developments and happenings in the community.
“There is a great resilience in the community in its ability to make something out of nothing,” Çelik said. “For many, even though there is no money they find ways to thrive and to survive.”
Even though the production centers on the experience of Cd. Juárez and El Paso, the themes of the piece are relevant to any city going through change and struggle, with the concept of borders — not only geographic, but within societies and individuals — being challenged and examined.
Actor-researcher Denis Butkus said, “The piece presents a series of questions and lessons, and sense of wonderment, that becomes as much about Cd. Juárez as any society.”
JUÁREZ : A Documentary Mythology premiered in Cd. Juárez and El Paso this past summer, before moving to New York. Following its run in Abu Dhabi, the production will move on to Cairo, and then will return to the US. Members of the public can view show times and register to receive a free ticket for the Abu Dhabi shows at nyuadjuarez.eventbrite.com.