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School of the Americas

José Rivera's new play about Che Guevara is little more than a pedestrian polemic. logo
John Ortiz and Patricia Velasquez in School of the Americas
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
As anyone who saw the Oscar-nominated biopic The Motorcycle Diaries can attest, screenwriter/playwright José Rivera is a bone-serious admirer of Ernesto Guevara de la Serna. That film -- which Rivera adapted from the famed revolutionary's diaries and from his traveling companion Alberto Granada's book With Che in Latin America -- showed Che Guevara, as Ernesto was more internationally known, to be a good-hearted 23-year-old medical student with a specialized interest in leprosy. In the film, the earnest fellow's life changes when he takes a panoramic motorcycle trip through his native Argentina and also visits points east, north and south. As a result of these travels, he sees the injustices of an unfair world.

Now, Rivera has written a companion theater piece, School of the Americas, which is being given its world premiere by the LAByrinth Theater Company and The Public Theater. But while The Motorcycle Diaries, despite its flaws, is powerful in evoking Che's revolutionary spirit, the play isn't much more than polemically pedestrian.

It's based loosely on what little is known about the very end of Guevera's life; he was executed on October 9, 1967, reportedly without a trial. In School of the Americas, the 39-year-old Guevara (played by John Ortiz) spends his last two days on earth bound and confined in a dim and claustrophobic Bolivia schoolroom (well designed by Andromache Chalfant and lit by David Weiner), where he tries to teach what he has learned to Julia Cortes (Patricia Velasquez), a disillusioned teacher whose personal life consists primarily of caring for her troubled sibling Lucila (the tough-as-nails Karina Arroyave).

Much of School of the Americas is given over to wheezing of the asthmatic Guevara's populist line. Some of what he says makes humanitarian sense, and there's no question that his anti-United States sentiments -- expressed only once in the play, but vehemently -- are pertinent today. But Rivera exhibits such an undeniable affection for Guevara's revolutionary theories and manifestos that he can't seem to stop himself from romanticizing them and their author.

Moreover, the brief romance that Rivera imagines for Guevara and Julia is hard to take -- even though director Mark Wing-Davey does his authoritative best to make it work, and Ortiz and Patricia play their tandem scenes with urgent sincerity. Julia drops her staunch Catholicism and converts to Che-ism in a matter of hours, while Che reciprocates by allowing Julia her modest ways. Compulsively crossing herself whenever Guevera swears, Julia also brings chicken soup to nourish his wracked body; in turn, he gives her chicken soup for the soul. But Julia's eager succumbing to Che's ideology, which is also ultimately embraced by Bolivian lieutenant Felix Ramos (the menacing and ruminative Felix Solis), flirts dangerously with foolishness.

One of Rivera's central questions in both The Motorcycle Diaries and School of the Americas is very much implied in the play's title: Who schools whom in life? The schoolroom is both cruel reality and metaphor, a place where the words "teach," "teacher," and "teaching" explode like grenades. At one point, Guevara asks Julia, "Do you teach your children why they're poor?" While Rivera has latched onto a momentous theme that goes resonantly beyond political cant, School of the Americas is undermined by being too much of a moral lesson.

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