Gary Soto’s ‘The Afterlife’ puts imaginative spin on life after death at The Flight Deck

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Content warning: suicide

On March 13, The Flight Deck, a collaborative arts venue in Oakland, hosted San Francisco Youth Theatre’s production of “The Afterlife,” a play written by Mexican American poet Gary Soto. “The Afterlife,” set in Soto’s hometown of Fresno, California, followed the events leading up to two teenagers’ deaths and explored what occurs after they die. Under SFYT’s amazing executive director, Emily Klion, the young cast and talented crew shined brilliantly.

In the production, Crystal (Bianca Catalan) and Chuy (Edwin Jacobs) are two young adults living through the excitement and drama of high school. One evening, however, Chuy is killed in a senseless stabbing and finds himself transported into a strange limbo. Crystal, meanwhile, is disillusioned after receiving a rejection letter from USC. Crystal battles with her depressive thoughts and commits suicide, materializing in the limbo as well. The two teenagers navigate their new forms as spirits together, knowing that their time is running out and they will soon leave Earth to go to their final resting place.

Catalan and Jacobs led the play effortlessly with their performances. Catalan maintained a balance of vulnerability and strength in her portrayal of Crystal, illustrating the complex struggle of depression in a realistic manner. Jacobs, on the other hand, was extremely charming and endearing, delivering his hilarious, yet smooth, one-liners with casual ease. Another standout performance was that of Kevin Obando, who played Yellow Shoes. Obando was a natural in his role, playing off his character’s violent recklessness while demonstrating the gray areas in his morality and embodying a nuanced villain.

Dyana Díaz deserves overflowing praise for her commendable stage direction and brilliant acting. Playing the role of loveable homeless woman Virginia, Díaz entranced the audience with her delightful eccentricity. Diaz provided a perfect blend of comedy and authenticity in her performance while remaining respectful of the nuances of her role. Her stage direction for the entire production, meanwhile, was creative and innovative. The movement of Catalan’s and Jacobs’ bodies as they tumbled across the stage through the afterlife was bittersweet. The two characters were magnetized to their old lives and to each other, but their inability to physically touch anything was a constant reminder of their impending departure from the world.

John Ramirez’s set design was whimsical and otherworldly. Purple lighting and fog created a mysterious atmosphere, while a tree made of wire fringes stood on the left stage. Three asymmetrical portals dominated the foreground, while random trails of orange, yellow and white paint dragged across the black floor. The set was both innovative and versatile, with each item serving multiple purposes and creating an air of the otherworldly.

George Brooks and Silvia Matheus curated an enjoyable, well-executed soundtrack for the play, capturing the Fresno community’s mixed culture through the use of everything from salsa music, to Mexican banda and the millennial dream pop in Crystal’s playlist. Brook and Matheus’ sound design added vibrance to the play, fleshing out the characters’ world into a living, breathing community filled with music, life, death and everything in between.

Above all, “The Afterlife” proved that love, family and solidarity are forces that transcend death. Chuy and Crystal are individuals who live on, not because of how they died, but what they lived for. In the play, Soto explored the gray areas in spirituality, addressing questions such as: Is suicide a waste of life? Why do people kill each other senselessly? Can vengeance bring someone back? Although Crystal and Chuy can never return to the lives they once led, they find hope and renewal in meeting each other, and, as Soto assures the audience, the legacy they leave behind will live on.

Luna Khalil covers culture and diversity. Contact her at [email protected].