Who owns what land and who has what rights to it is very much in today's news. Made long before anyone could have known that a handful of men in Oregon would decide that they have rights to common land that no one else does, the selection of PlayMakers' current show in their PRC2 series now seems like a prescient choice. KJ Sanchez' Highway 47 explores some related themes in the history of a large land grant in what is now New Mexico, and how the good of the commons was wrecked over time by both bad intentions and good.
In her 90-minute one-woman performance, Sanchez tells and dramatizes the story of her (very extended) family and their lives — 13 generations — along Highway 47 on land between the Rio Grande and the parallel mountain range, in Tome, New Mexico. The first settlers came there in 1680; in the 1730s, the King of Spain granted a quarter-million acres to those families (who, Sanchez reveals, were not originally Spanish Christians but "conversos," both Indians and Jews). Held in common and peaceably ranched for a long while, the large holding eventually became irresistible to individuals who would enrich themselves by taking from others. By the time Sanchez — last of 12 children, born in the 1960s — came along, the common land had shrunk to 47,000 acres, and during her young life, the battle over who could use and profit from the land exploded. As with most explosions, there was grievous damage.
For Sanchez, the story is very personal — it was her father and his good intentions that tore apart the town and resulted in the loss of all the land. Gilly Sanchez, his "righteous indignation," his readiness for risk and fight and, most of all, for work, ended up dividing the little town, splitting families, and leaving everyone poorer than they started, although this was the opposite of Gilly's original intention. KJ Sanchez' mother, who outlived her husband by 20 years, told KJ repeatedly to tell this story — but not until after she was dead! It took many years for her to research it (being a "bad cowgirl" she had hightailed it to New York City at a young age) and shape the story for the stage. Although there are a few odd information gaps that occur to one later, the presentation is vivid and absorbing, with details that bring these people and their community into startling life.
One of the play's purposes, of course, is for the artist to come to terms with being her father's daughter. But unlike many personal history-centered performances, Sanchez uses those personal meditations to bolster the tragic story, rather than making herself and her trials the point of the production. Certainly she reveals a good deal of herself, but (so happy to report) her play is not screaming "me, me, me." Instead, she allows this story to reveal a little-known aspect of the history of this continent, and cannily places it in the long theatrical tradition of exploring human frailty and venality, and the ties and taints of blood.
Near the beginning, speaking of her early exit from New Mexico and the burden of this tale, she says she wanted to make her own history, "rather than grappling with the one I was given." Naturally, that proved impossible. The tale is smoothly told (in a wonderful range of voices), but she's left enough evidence of her struggle to sand the road of this slippery story, and put in plenty of switchbacks so that we make the climb with her gradually, with ever-changing viewpoints on the landscape. A single person telling a long complicated story like this on stage needs a little help, and Sanchez and team have devised some excellent props and physical actions that both explicate and enliven.
Sanchez is very engaging, even entertaining, so all the sadness and difficulty may not hit you until later. Highway 47 comprises yet another chapter in the long human tale of family cohesion and division, of possessiveness and greed, of high ideals gone wrong, and, most importantly, of the struggle to hate the sin but love the sinner.
Recommended. Through January 10 in the Kenan Theater in the UNC Center for Dramatic Art. See our sidebar for details.