Friday, July 17, 2009

Immigrant Drama: “Maybe You Have to Yell a Little”

By David L. Wilson (co-author, The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers)
July 16, 2009

Something truly original is coming to the New York theater scene this week. In a small West Side playhouse a dozen immigrant youths will give the world premiere on Friday of a bilingual one-act play they have created from their own experiences and those of their friends.

“Las Escenas de la Cruz/Scenes From the Cross” follows a group of young people on their journey from Mexico to New York, cutting back and forth between their grueling days and nights in the desert and the dramas and disappointments they face once they get here.

The play grew out of the iDoTheater project of iPOWER , a New York-based nonprofit that helps immigrant youths expand their skills and talents.

Daniel Carlton, a professional actor and playwright, has worked with the cast over the past year to develop the eight-scene script out of a series of improvisations. The result is a rare opportunity to hear from the people who have largely been excluded from the immigration debate in the mainstream media—the immigrants themselves.

Giving immigrants a voice was the iDoTheater project’s goal from the time it started two years ago, according to one of the founding members, who came here from Mexico’s Puebla state when he was thirteen. “We wanted to create a group to tell our own stories,” he says. The collective produced two brief plays previously; “Las Escenas” is the group’s first large-scale effort.

Most of the cast members are from Latin America; one was born in China. Many of the people they know have made the dangerous crossing into the United States that provides much of the play’s action; more than 4,000 people have died in the attempt during the past fifteen years. Like the play’s characters, most of the actors came here with dreams of greater opportunities in El Norte and instead found labor exploitation, broken promises, disrupted families, and threats from criminal gangs.

The young actors aren’t always polished, but they more than make up for their lack of experience with a deeply felt emotion and, sometimes, surprising humor.

“The hardest part is just getting them together for rehearsals,” says the energetic and talented Carlton, who coaches the cast in a very New York mixture of Spanish and English. Like many teens in the city, the actors in “Las Escenas” have to juggle schedules that include low-wage jobs and classes in high schools and community colleges. Carlton and the cast held the rehearsals and script writing sessions in whatever spaces they could find: in classrooms at The Door, a downtown youth project, in local restaurants, and, when the weather was good, in city parks.

For the youth from Puebla the result was worth the effort. He hopes that seeing the play will be “good for the others…for the people who don’t face the risks” of immigrant life.

Asked if he thinks “Las Escenas” will help non-immigrants see the point of view of the people who cross the border, another cast member says he’s not sure. “But if you don’t tell them, they won’t hear you. Maybe you have to yell a little.”

The play is part of this year’s Midtown International Theatre Festival. Performances will held be at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre at 312 West 36th Street in Manhattan on Friday, July 17 at 7 pm (sold out); Saturday, July 18 at 3 pm; Sunday, July 19 at 4 pm; Tuesday, July 21 at 6:30 pm; Saturday, July 25 at 1 pm; and Saturday, August 1 at 7 pm. Tickets are available from 886-811-4111 or

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