Ramona: The Pageant! (Two)

Notable about the musical numbers was the utter conflation of all cultural distinctions into sameness.

The dance sequence at the hacienda, for example, features all sorts of dance—high Spanish flamenco and cape dances, early 19th-century European partner dancing (with castanets?!), fancy folklorico footwork, all punctuated by gunshots and olés and rope tricks. It wasn’t from the time–but from an imaginary Spanish/Mexican past, where there were no distinctions between classes, or californios and Spaniards and mestizo Mexicans.

The Indian dance sequence followed with a montage of traditional dance from tribes who never stepped a wee moccasin in this part of the world. We saw fancy dancing and hoop dance and grass dance—and while the program noted from which tribes these dances emerged, it was without of acknowledgement that Native American tribes were different peoples entirely, with different traditions and cultures and languages, their most binding commonality being the manner in which they all were royally screwed by European invaders.

Not only have the richly diverse and complex Spanish-speaking and Native American populations been melded down into one thing each—the two populations themselves are conflated with blithe ignorance. Meaning, the brown people speak and sound and look pretty much the same. Check it—the four young men who did the drumming for the Indian dances looked like honest to God SoCal ese vatos. Also, a Spanish accent is used by indios and californios interchangeably.

Spanish as a language appears in the script entirely for exclamations and ejections and as tag ends of sentences to remind us that hey! they spoke Spanish. Ah, the old days. It was a Spanishy time.

In this version of reality, it’s the californios and indios verses the encroaching americanos: “Since the americanos have come and under the new laws, no one can call his land his own,” says Mr. Exposition, skipping the part about how local indigenous peoples hadn’t called the land their own from the conquista onwards through the Mission fathers and the californios.

(FYI: americanos, in case you were wondering, weren’t bad people for taking Indian and californio land—they simply had no choice, as they were trying to do right by their families. Sure, there were a few bad apples, but most of the white settlers were racked with resigned regret).

Details? Whatever. The pageant melts difference down and forges a mythology of a common Southern Californian heritage through our shared enjoyment, our shared pleasure in spectacle. At one point, we may have been separate, but our fates always were connected; we were always manifestly destined to be here together as Americans.

The mythology gains authenticity through the final, if not the ultimate, spectacle in the show. It’s not the singing or the dancing. It’s the people.

And that, my friends, is what struck me by the end of the pageant: the main event of Ramona comes from watching lots of bodies onstage, and those bodies onstage in the wide stretch of nature.

Ramona opened with the “traditional annual procession,” which is nothing more than the cast making a simple stage cross. But the cast has over 400 members, including 200 local kids. Wearing colorful Mexican dresses or in Injun loincloths, or set up as cowboys on horseback and carrying flags—they all emerge from the bushes stage right and march slowly across. The cast is thick on the footpath, colorful and bright, and the procession just lasts and lasts, while the audience gasps and laughs and points at the cute little kids. The opening has no purpose in the show except for that.

In the first act at the hacienda, opportunities for scenes of dramatic import or transition are instead used to shoe-horn in large group scenes of little kid hijinks. And both dance numbers are as much for the people not dancing, crowding the stage in costume and number, as for the main performers.

The Indian dance number culminated in a prayer to the four winds or nature gods or whatever (because all Native Americans worshipped the same gods in the same way, of course). The forty performers onstage who have been dancing turn to all four corners, and reach up to the sky and the earth and whatever—and suddenly they’re facing upstage, looking at the big foothill stage right, when:

From behind trees and rocks and corners you never even expected to look, at least 80 actors in “native” garb emerge. With the late afternoon light hitting their bodies, suddenly the flat pastoral plane of nature gains depth and movement—everyone gasps, and looks for more life in the landscape, and everywhere you look, there are more—crouching and standing, the silhouettes of at least twenty lining the top of the high hill, just being there. It’s a breathtaking sight.

It’s as if, by placing these bodies enacting life on the familiar California chaparral scrub brush hills, we are seeing the real past.

Simultaneous with the play’s action, throughout the big dramatic scenes, they have Indians (children and adults) “living” and playing in Indian huts stationed upstage and opposite from the hacienda, in the foothills. The stage focus never goes to them, so it creates an illusion of seeing things as they were.

We get the delicious shock of watching people actually walk through the hills—when the Padre leaves the hacienda, he really hikes away. It actually takes a while for him to get offstage to where we can’t see him—which makes it so much realer. Later in the show, cowboys on horses descend from the tip top of the foothills, the horses picking their way through steep and narrow paths. At the very end, when Alessandro is killed, a man on horseback shoots him from across the stage—and we watch Alessandro roll down. Left on the rock near where he was standing when shot, we see a large smear of very real-looking blood.

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