One of my favorite gospel bands makes use of actors and dancers who stage stories of the Bible during breaks in the music. Though the acting can seem a bit hokey — imagine illustrating Cain and Abel through dance — when the band kicks in at the vignette’s close, there’s an added jolt to the shouts of “hallelujah,” and I always leave feeling more soulful.
I felt the same way coming out of the Seattle performance of By The Hand Of The Father, which in its own way is storytelling not unlike the tale of wandering Israelites. This multi-dimensional theatrical play mixes acting, photography, film and the music of Alejandro Escovedo to tell the saga of Mexican-American fathers in the early part of the 20th century. It is a moving tale about a disenfranchised group, and it is an important piece of work, perhaps the most significant labor of Escovedo’s long and esteemed career. I have seen Escovedo numerous times in a variety of settings, have even heard some of these same tunes with different bands; never have his songs sounded more profound or had so much emotional impact.
By The Hand Of The Father employs nine spoken vignettes, two actors, numerous photographs and several short films — all of this going on while the band remains onstage providing primarily background music. Actor Rose Portillo helped write the vignettes, along with Theresa Chavez and Eric Gutierrez, and she and Kevin Sifuentes recite dialogue from Mexican-American family life, mostly centered around the fathers.
The play begins with men’s arrival in the new land and the difficulties that come when language and customs present huge barriers. As the fathers assimilate and begin to work in America, their struggles become more internal — how to retain heritage when you are of two countries. At its core, this is a tale of men who were “neither here nor there,” and the challenges they faced finding a place to belong.
That theme of searching for belonging is central to all of Escovedo’s work, so it is no wonder that his songs are so appropriate for this piece. Escovedo mixes tunes that were written for this play (including “Wave” and “Rosalie”) with songs composed years earlier, but the emotional landscape explored is so similar that the genealogy of the tunes hardly matters.
For instance, “Ballad Of The Sun And Moon,” one of the first songs Escovedo ever wrote, sounds as if it were penned yesterday as part of this story, while “With These Hands” takes on new meaning when framed by tales of laborers struggling to support their families. Some of the songs in this play ended up on Escovedo’s recent record A Man Under The Influence, and the dramatic work serves as a sort of backstory to the album.
Though the idea for By The Hand Of The Father was inspired by Escovedo’s attempts to tell the tale of his own father’s immigration, this is not a story about Pedro Escovedo. Instead, the writers have attempted to create an “everyman” allegory that links five different characters. While that effort is admirable, the overall narrative structure is confusing and hard to follow. Some of the fathers are kind; others are brutal in what was largely a patriarchal society.
The play also seeks to tell the story of several generations, which is perhaps more than can be easily conveyed in one evening’s performance. The writing might have been stronger if it focused on one or two individuals, rather than creating a pastiche of Mexican-American fathers.
Yet such concerns hardly matter if you let go of the need to follow individual stories and concentrate on the commonality that links them. The night was all about family, and even when the dialogue lagged, Escovedo was a master at exploring the same themes through his songs. With his stellar “mini-orchestra,” he created a lush, melancholy soundtrack that on songs such as the haunting “Across The River” transported you to another place and another time with a power that the album track alone lacks. I came out of the theater both humming the songs, and thinking of the faces of the many characters that had flashed upon the screen behind the stage. They are faces I don’t think I’ll soon forget.