“Death is already not what it ought to be.”
In Matthew Paul Olmos’ second part of his trilogy on the Mexican/US drug wars, so go the ghosts of mexico, the acclaimed playwright ponders the cyclical effects of masculine domination. The warring drug lords featured in this play initially believe that death is the ultimate way to defeat their economic and territorial competition, shooting neon orange automatic pistols with regularity. In Olmos’s story, the dead victims of various cartels reemerge from the chalk outlines on the ground as wandering spirits, and they will not rest until the cycle of violence ends.
The members of the cartel are not portrayed as individuals, but in regards to their role within the cartel. These roles shift at times, as the cartel’s hierarchy never remains stable from scene to scene. Jefe (or “boss”) competes with Narco Otro (or “another narco”), constantly clashing over territory—the sky, roads, earth, and even the sea. At one point, an elaborate tunnel system is constructed underneath the US and even a submarine is introduced into the world.
These groups attempt to control various parts of the earth, but are never successful for prolonged periods of time—because of the opportunist nature of the cartel. Loyalty only extends as long as those below you continue to remain below, and those above do not display a chink in their emotional armor. The cartel appears to be full of opportunists, vying for fame and dominance—more so than money—in this arrangement. El Azul, an upredictable member of Jefe’s cartel, takes any opportunity to interrupt, steal, or kill—aiming for personal notoriety over family loyalty.
Interlaced with controlling the practical drug trade, the characters aim to showcase their dominance online by livestreaming their kills. Continuously, Azul and El Chango set their sights on fame in America, primarily through media presence as they kill numerous people and stream their deaths online. The cartel continuously refer to themselves as a family, but is that really what a cartel can provide? Clearly, it is an ever changing entity—allegiances shift, territory is stolen, people are removed from the physical world. At times, those who were oppressed become the oppressors. The cartel endures a vicious spiral of protecting and attacking, leading to the deaths of countless people, even children. So many, that by the end, there are a greater number of dead spirits wandering the earth than living people.
The world premiere is presented by Undermain Theatre in Dallas, Texas, which produced the first play of the trilogy last year and has committed to producing the third next season. John Arnone transforms Undermain’s basement space into a circular arena, with human-size puppets wrapped around the structural pillars. String lights attach the bodies to the columns, marking the theatre space with glowing corpses. On the floor, five outlines of bodies appear on the floor—foreshadowing the ending of the play.
Director Katherine Owens pulls visceral performances out of the ensemble of five women. That’s right, the Mexican cartel are portrayed by women. The actresses commit to playing masculine drug lords, through physical swagger and baggy costumes (designed by Amanda Capshaw) that hide any kind of feminine shape.
This is a part of Olmos’s vision of telling the story of the cartel, perhaps as an alienation effect to make the audience question the language and choices of the men running the drug trade. The cartel continuously discusses their disgust for being perceived as too feminine:
“What’re you, a fucking woman, begging, pleading; asking always asking?”
“You an me are what they call men, Jefe. La Burra was like the opposite of us.”
These words emerging from voices that are distinctly female establish a jarring experience for the audience. We are led to question the value of masculine dominance, particularly as it leads to so much death. In addition to this, Olmos includes a number of songs and dance sequences, to further jolt the audience out of the story. The songs, including raps, depict the character’s expectations for the future and aspirations for fame. These fantasy sequences emphasize the delusional ideal of masculinity—it ultimately isolates the person pursuing that end. And yet, while these characters claim hypermasculinity as a badge of honor, the impulsive killings of competitors and teenagers extend “beyond gender,” perhaps even beyond humanity.
The play begins with La Burra (“donkey”) flying one of Jefe’s planes to deliver a shipment. El Azul, the primary force of disruption and chaos, is responsible for crashing the plane—leading to La Burra’s death at the hands of Narco Otro. La Burra’s spirit leaves his physical body, and he begins to disrupt the lives of the cartel.
La Burra is not the only spirit that walks the earth, there are many more—it seems that every young person that the cartel has taken resurfaces. In one instance, they stop the tunnel system and do so easily because so many dead souls from the cartel are buried in the ground. The dead act in a way to both intervene (to stop more senseless deaths) and to reach a peaceful state for themselves.
Olmos takes great care to depict how easily one can be seduced by illusory masculine dominance, primarily through El Chango (“the change” or “monkey”). At first, El Chango is an innocent bystander picked up by El Azul. At one point, Jefe tells him to “find a personality,” as he silently lurks in the corner. But El Chango is always watching (monkey see, monkey do). He evolves as he recognizes the immediate rewards of being in Jefe’s cartel—the potential for “being somebody” and earning a reputation. He starts behaving like El Azul and Jefe, mirroring their dominance but not comprehending the full consequences of their choices. Alliances switch in a moment, and Chango joins Otro for a new opportunity: taking over the sea trade in a submarine.
After this, El Chango fully transforms from a child who fears the world of guns to gleefully carrying a golden pistol and a machete. Eventually, he kills a group of American teenagers and livestreams their execution, sending their body parts into the ocean. The dead surround El Chango, and he returns to his feeble nature from the beginning of the play. Perhaps that was his true self after all—sensitive and unsure. He says, “I have seen more dead than dollar bills.” He realizes that he can never recapture his innocence in the shadow of all the blood he has spilled.
In so go the ghosts of mexico the dead linger on, trapped in a purgatorial state to warn those that abuse mortality. La Burra as a ghost says to El Azul, “You’re fucking with death. You cheat los muertos and make us exist just somewhere in between.” While the living cartel members frequently send messages to enemies to not interfere with their enterprise—by insinuating that if anyone does mess with them, death is the consequence—they are no match for the ghosts wandering the earth. The dead have a ubiquitous nature, popping up anywhere at any moment. In an interesting reversal, the dead seem to have more power than any living cartel member, but it is kind of dominance they never wished to possess.