The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Canada, the US and Mexico came into effect on 1 January, 1994. I was eleven years old. The agreement ushered in a degree of national prosperity for all three countries, but Mexico’s low minimum wage, lax environmental regulations and corrupt officials made a perfect storm for sweatshop conditions in the US-owned factories (maquiladoras) taking advantage of the exchange rate and unemployment in Mexican border towns. The maquiladora owners favoured female workers for their diligence and precision and employed girls as young as fourteen, who were better suited for working 12-hour days in harsh environments than older women or clumsy men. These girls, only a few years older than me, were assembling electronics and convenience items out of toxic materials for 39 cents an hour.
I’m American. Though I hide it well with a deliberately constructed accent and uniquely British habits and mannerisms that I’ve developed in the nearly twelve years that I’ve lived here, I still have the passport, the cultural history and the guilt to prove it. Normally that guilt is shaped like guns, healthcare or Trump, but it occasionally takes on other forms. This time it’s privilege. That privilege/guilt pours down my cheeks in hot, angry tears during Theatre Ad Infinitum’s Bucket List. The story of the women and girls’ lives dictated by the maquiladoras, some as young as me, is a horrifying contrast to the suburban middle-class upbringing I had, kept busy with school and music lessons and theatre rehearsals and ambitions. I may have had something that these girls made, some frivolous object bought without thinking in order to make my life easier or better, and I was totally oblivious to their hardship. I did not have to worry about my mother being killed for protesting the maquiladoras’ pollution, or about my auntie being raped by her manager, or getting cancer from the chemicals I encountered on a daily basis.
But for the women and girls in Bucket List, that is their life. The all-female, international cast, directed by Nir Paldi, devised a magical realism story of these desperate factory towns based on an idea from Mexican company member Vicky Araico Casas. Incorporating George Mann’s distinctive choreography and live music, Bucket List tells the story of Milagros (played by Casas), a girl growing up in one of these towns dominated by maquiladoras. Her generation’s experiences and those of her mother’s interweave, creating a landscape of labour, political protests, coming of age and revenge. It is a dense story covering a decade of these women’s lives, but Paldi’s script is easy to follow. Magical realism creeps in stealthily, and only at the end of the performance do certain events seem untenable and raise the question of whether or not they actually happened. Regardless of this fuzzy line between reality and fantasy, Bucket List is an anthem of strength that roars with political agenda and gives voice to the disregarded victims of developed nations.
Initially more of a montage of life experiences, Milagros’ story slowly begins to emerge. This could shift slightly earlier in the piece, but the exposition at the beginning gives wider context and does not feel extraneous. Paldi maintains a careful balance of these women’s lives and a wider, North American political picture that slightly tips in favour of the women, but there is enough of the outside world’s oppression and token assistance to inspire the characters’ rage and passion. Milagros’ tragic end adds fuel to the production’s fury against exploitation that comes out as a roar rather than a whimper.
There is hardly any set and technology on display, a dramatic change from their last adult show, Light. Instead, costume plays a bright but subtle role in the story – the five women playing the girls and their family wear coloured t-shirts with cartoon characters often idealised by young girls. Disney princesses, Batgirl and Alice in Wonderland offer them an American-created fantasy that they can strive for but will most certainly never achieve.
Juxtaposed against these pastel tops are quite vicious games demonising the powerful politicians and corporations that shape their lives. They also mock their working conditions, daily violence at the hands of men and threats to their lives. Milagros’ mother (Deborah Pugh) is a vocal political protester, demonstrating a ferocity also contrasting her character’s clothing. The excellent live score by Amy Nostbakken is more of a direct expression of the fighting spirit and sadness within these women.
Though a text-driven piece, Mann uses a series of motifs that soon become recognisable, indicating specific actions and locations. They enhance the understanding and often act as a substitute for words. Though used regularly, Mann’s choreography is one of the company’s trademarks and is unfortunately underused, especially considering the lack of set.
Even though NAFTA is over twenty years old, the maquiladoras are still there, employing women for long hours, polluting local rivers and creating environments ripe for exploitation. Paldi’s script aggressively demands awareness which may be unpalatable to some, but should be required viewing for every American blissfully unaware of their brothers and sisters across the border that are so often looked down upon with racist disgust. Bucket List is truly vital theatre in our age of disposable, thoughtless consumerism.
Bucket List runs through 29th August.
The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.