Finding loving homes for young orphans is a mission so admirable, one should be hard-pressed to find fault with it, let alone try to derail it. But apparently the “Anglos” who prevented Mexican families from becoming foster parents in 1904 Arizona never got the telegram about charity and kindness. To nobody’s surprise, racism and bigotry drove the dispute, which ended up in court.
That is the real-life battle the playwright Karen Zacarías (“Native Gardens”) revisits in “The Copper Children,” which the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is streaming through July 15 after premiering the play in March — the first in a pandemic-inspired series that deserves to be emulated.
The spirited but often schematic show, directed by Shariffa Ali, was one of the festival’s American Revolutions commissions of “new plays sprung from moments of change in United States history,” which also hatched Robert Schenkkan’s “All the Way” and Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat.”
We are in the neighboring small towns of Clifton and Morenci, where Mexican men toil at the copper mine for half of their Anglo counterparts’ salary, and live in insalubrious conditions with their families. A company dictates everything in this company town.
Meanwhile, across the country, New York’s Foundling Hospital, run by the Sisters of Charity, has a surplus of abandoned babies, most of them Irish.
Father Mandin (Eddie Lopez), a French priest newly posted in Arizona, realizes he knows a lot of folks who would welcome those kids and raise them as good Catholics. Presto, a pair of New York nuns travel westward by train, 57 children in tow. The new arrivals are a godsend for Mexican couples like Margarita and Cornelio Chacón (Caro Zeller and Christopher Salazar), though the sisters are rattled by the “swarthy” prospective parents — they’d imagined Spaniards.
Rumors start flying immediately, as when someone reports seeing “a Mexican mother forcing her young foundling to drink beer straight from the bottle and eat beans with spice.” But what really riles the Anglos, who are largely Protestant, is the prospect of people of the wrong ethnicity raising babies in the wrong religion. The powerful Lottie Mills (Kate Hurster), who is married to the mining company’s superintendent, even seizes Margarita’s assigned child — portrayed by a puppet touchingly animated, Bunraku-style, by various actors.
“I should have been aware of that antipathy that exists between Americans and Mexicans,” Mandin says in a naïve understatement.
Zacarías, who is among the country’s most produced playwrights, subtitled her play “a historical fable.” She puts herself squarely in the Brechtian tradition of political theater, alternating between detached narrative segments told in the third person and a more naturalistic approach in other scenes, with a few songs peppered here and there. The nine actors adeptly take on a couple of roles each, even if nobody, save Zeller, is given the opportunity to make much of a lasting impression.
Eschewing traditional characterization is a brave stylistic decision, but Zacarías and Ali also try to incorporate docudrama elements at times, and do not fully commit to the radical aesthetics — and fury — of agit-theater.
“The Copper Children” also bends under the weight of its catalog of issues: racism, nationalism, religious discrimination, class warfare, economic exploitation and even environmental threats are crammed in under 90 minutes. It’s not often that one wishes for a longer running time, but frustratingly, the show rushes to its conclusion just as it was finding a hybrid groove.
The Copper Children
Available on Shows on O! through July 15. Running time: 1 hour 28 minutes.