What the drama students of Saint Bonaventure High School in Ventura have been up to this summer is nothing like doing a school play on the TV show High School Musical. No flashy superficiality or tidy story lines here. The play they are working on, "The Line in the Sand: Stories from the US/Mexico Border," straddles the fault lines of the deepest social and economic crises facing the Americas today: immigration. Introduced to the play back in June, they've spent the summer researching the issues and, through the unique alchemy of theatre, are merging art and activism into storytelling. In the process, they have undergone personal and political transformations that they hope will ripple out into their communities and make a difference in the lives of those trapped in the crisis.
"The Line in the Sand" opens September 13th and runs until the 16th, with student matinees and evening performances accompanied by a post-show dialogues (see the poster below for more info). The one-act will be performed as a double bill with another short play, Clifford Odets' "Waiting For Lefty," which centers on a group of exploited cab drivers organizing a strike. Odets and the Group Theatre interviewed poor, immigrant workers in New York in the 1930's and created a fictional play that was instrumental in helping the disenfranchised come together to form unions and create laws to protect workers. Director and Drama Department Chair Patricia Strickland is excited to present these plays together because they depict different waves of immigrants having the same experience of seeking dignity and a better life while being vulnerable to abuse. Strickland hopes this will establish "a foundation that we all share this background of being immigrants, and that we've all been through this before." She adds, "we just need to stop this pattern of having it be alright to treat a group of people as subhuman."
"The Line in the Sand" was developed very much in the same way as "Lefty". In 2005, the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) agency sent writers and actors to the Arizona-Mexico border to "study immigration and advance the cause of justice for immigrants," as their website explains. "The Line in the Sand" emerges from these interviews as a series of monologues drawn from the points of view of many people caught up in the crisis; not just migrants, but ranchers, border patrol agents, even forensic doctors. "One of the most important parts of this play is it doesn't take sides, there are no good guys or bad guys," says actor Joseph Poole, "it just shows you the story and let's you make up your own mind about it." Rather than being a fictional narrative, the text is comprised of vignettes of real words spoken by real people. It is theatre stripped down to an essence: the sharing of personal stories. These particular stories are embedded in the DNA of all Americans- the stories of how our families came here and their struggles to take root.
CRS's intent is to have the play presented in schools and parishes throughout the country to create awareness of the complexity of the issues and their humanitarian toll. Sister Dolores Bray brought "The Line in the Sand" to Saint Bonaventure. She became aware of the play as a board member of Ventura County Church and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), an interfaith organization working on issues such as immigrants' and workers' rights, farmworker housing and healthcare. Those of us not directly involved in Catholicism might not be aware that social justice is one of its core tenets. It is Article Three of the Catechism- the official written text of the teachings of the Catholic Church and its components; respect for human life, equality, and solidarity, laid the foundations for anti-trust laws, credit unions and trade unions. In the anti-war movement in Chicago in the early 90's, I was struck by how it was nuns on the front lines, organizing and blocking streets in non-violent protest, and getting arrested over and over again in peaceful demand for political change. Many paid with their lives in fighting for justice in south and central America and other places across the globe. As Sister Bray expresses, "I came to my faith to be a person who works for justice in the world."
As a co-producer of the play, CLUE arranged for the students to meet with undocumented immigrants, activists, and an immigration attorney. Actress Sarah Muller says that "this is just amazing because it's opening my limited scope on things, it's like wow there is so much I never even thought is going on." CLUE is also organizing one of their immersion experiences for the cast and crew; a day-long tour of a farmworker community. This depth of research reflects the deep responsibility that the young actors feel for the material. This process "is very different than doing other plays," actor Michael Minkoff explains, "we have spent weeks just discussing the project because we need to understand the subject before we put it up on stage."
As the actors have discovered, the issues strike very close to home. Ventura County is ranked #10 in agricultural production in the country, with one in ten of its residents relying in some way on income derived from farming. Ninety-five percent of Ventura county's workforce of field pickers were born outside the US, and an estimated fifty-seven percent of these workers are here illegally. The secret in Ventura is that everyone knows that undocumented workers pick our food and sustain our economy. Everyone. The farmers will tell you we need them. Americans won't do the back-breaking, excruciating work, and there is a perpetual shortage of labor to harvest the fields. The plight of undocumented workers is staring right back at us from our dinner plates. Every single one of us in this country benefits from the lower food prices, yet there are no laws to protect these workers simply because they are not supposed to be here. As actress Natalie Van Conas expressed, "I realized that the immigration crisis, it's not just the families and the people working for it, and the people by the border, it's really everyone."
Strickland is the first to admit that, before working on this play, she wasn't thinking very much about these issues. "I mean, I thought that the issue needed to be dealt with and we should do something about these poor immigrants, la la la, but not on this level and not with this understanding of how we are so directly involved in this cycle." The students have had similar awakenings to the amount of suffering, the intractability of the issues, and the urgency to do something about it. Actress Aracelil Gonzàlez recognizes that "they are coming over not just because they want to, but because they have to- their families are dying before their eyes." It is hard once they get here too. The work is hard, the pay is by the piece not by the hour, and field pickers have to migrate from farm to farm to get work. They are often exploited by bosses and even the unions. There are other hardships for those raised here illegally. Through CLUE, the students met with a woman named Juana, who, brought here at the age of four, has grown up and earned degrees and jobs. They were surprised to experience her as American in every way that they are except for the paper. She pays taxes and social security through someone else's number but she'll never get that money back. Actor Sean Riley feels compassion for the burden of her secret. "It's really not yours to tell anyone and you have to keep it with you at all times," because, he explains, "even though it does endanger you, it also endangers your family." That secret could also endanger friends, even entire neighborhoods.
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The students, like most of us, are overwhelmed by the complexity of the problem. Conor Boales commented that because of US farm subsidies, Mexican farmers can't compete with the flood of cheaper food coming from the US, and that there is a tangle of trade and drug policies choking immigration reform. Often times solutions ends up creating other problems. And the suffering is enormous. "We go back to 'what would Jesus do' and I think even Jesus would be overwhelmed by this," says actor Charlie Strickland, "like when he was trying to heal all the lepers but there was so many of them that he couldn't help them all and it crushed his heart and I think we are dealing with exact same thing that he was dealing with, which is greed." He is hoping for some "crazy paradigm shift, where even the people in the one percent realize that we are all equal, we all deserve a chance, and that they shouldn't horde all this wealth." While there is rampant exploitation and paying the workers more would help, the system of agricultural production, distribution, and finance are global now. And farmers, unlike other industries, can't control the conditions of production. They can't make it rain. As Chris Dryden of Mission Avocados explains, "our profit boons come from some calamity on the other side of the world," like a citrus freeze in Florida or a drought in Chile.
Many of us choose to turn away from looking at the immigration crisis precisely because of the overwhelm. What the Saint Bonaventure students have realized is that, in the absence of a silver bullet solution, their deep examination of the issue has offered other enduring gifts. They've discovered that they recognize themselves in the people caught up in the crisis. In conversations with her family over the summer, Araceli Gonzàlez came to realize that she comes from "a long line of immigrants- it's never-ending!" Joseph Poole confesses that prior to working on the play, he thought the border patrol were the bad guys, but he now sees them as victims of circumstances as well. What has been brought into focus for them in particular is the importance of family, of strong, supportive and accepting families. Liam Cochrane sees something in the families of friends whose parents are undocumented, "I can look at their family and I can see how close they are and I feel like, wow, just being around them I feel accepted, even though my skin color may not be theirs, where i can go over to another friend's house and not even feel accepted at all." Expanding on this idea, Conor Boales says, "we are taught that the family is the cell of the community, it is the smallest structure of the community and when that breaks down the community breaks down," and he hopes, "if we can come together in our own families, then the nation comes together and, with that, maybe even the world would come together and we would be in solidarity."
Patricia Strickland is confident that this paradigm shift is indeed underway in the youth she is working with. "They really see the world differently than we do, they are used to adaptable change, they are used to pliable borders, they are used to having friends on X-box that live in other countries," and she says it is not as easy for them to dismiss others because they aren't American. I notice that they seem to possess the strength and clarity to look inside themselves for answers, asking 'who am I in this?' and 'what can I do?' Joseph Poole summed it up for me. "One of the basic foundations of the Catholic faith is respect for human life and human dignity and it really does bring it back to how, in this situation that is happening right now, both of those rights are being stepped on and how we as Catholics, or frankly, not as Catholics, but just people in general can't let people lose their lives and be treated like they are nothing." What Strickland wants us to remember is youth theatre doesn't have to be about classics and musicals. These kids are our future leaders, lawmakers and decision-makers and they deserve the respect and rigor that difficult and important material demands. Watching her students throw themselves so deeply into the rough waters of the immigration crisis renews my faith in our tomorrows.
While there are many ways to help further immigration reform, being a part of a play, as either actor or audience, is a way to activate the mind, the imagination, the heart, and spirit in pursuit of understanding. Just seeing a play can prompt further action or it can offer insights into the human story that journalism or statistics can't touch. We've become so accustomed to the polished exhilaration of the movie experience that we fail to recognize theatre as a place to participate in deep and often messy conversation. It is a sacred space, like church, separate from everyday life as a place designated for feeling and contemplation. As St. Bonaventure actress Angelina Diaz puts it, "I don't ever have deeper conversations than I do in the theatre... it just takes you to a different world and it connects all life and everyone." In that spirit, I encourage you to step out of the familiar and step into the conversations that theatre artists would like to have with you. Especially for projects such as this one, where the goal is to share awareness, kindle further conversation, and create necessary change. As audience members, we have a responsibility to show up and and complete the circle of their intended success.
For More Information:
- If you or your school are interested in attending a student matinee, please call Patricia Strickland at 805-443-5783.
- Ventura County Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice
- Ventura County Agriculture
- Line in the Sand
Top Image: The cast rehearsing: Angelina Diaz, Tayler Drew, Gabriel Meade, Sarah Muller, Liam Cochrane. AJ Herrera, Sean Riley and Anthony Khodanian.
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