Arts & Life, Fine & Performing Arts

CalRep’s “Dreamers” gives perspective on DACA

True accounts were brought to stage in “Dreamers: Aqui y Alla” to explore today’s political and social climate of being a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival recipient.

California Repertory Company’s latest play, directed by Andrea Caban and Julie Granata-Hunicutt, follows a handful of DACA recipients through their struggles living under President Donald Trump’s administration.

The play was made in collaboration with the California-Mexico Studies Center to create an authentic retelling of student’s experiences of visiting their home country and seeing their family, then returning back to the United States.

The story begins with a group of Deferred Action recipients learning about the program and what it could mean for them; the chance to legally work, being able to attain an ID and driver’s license. We see the joy and excitement in each character’s lives as they consider their life in a new light. The emotion is quick to falter, as they realize the amount of paperwork they have to come up with and the daunting hoops they have to jump through to even be considered for the program. This gives us a glimpse into the reality of being a dreamer that is often brushed under the figurative rug.

The play spends a significant amount of time establishing this reality, showing the audience the lengthy application process and fees, the characters having to notify their employer of their status and the emotional toll it takes on each individual. Most of the students are excited about their prospective changes, but one man named Francisco expresses his fear to the lawyer about giving all of his information to the U.S. government.

While these issues are presented, actors recite passages from actual Deferred Action recipients about their experience with the bill, weaving in these real accounts with those acted out on the stage.

The play travels through years and presidencies, giving us a perspective on what it’s like to be a Deferred Action recipient through the constantly changing political landscape.

We see more of an intersection between the story and reality as the characters embark on a trip to Mexico to visit their family using the Advanced Parole system, drawing directly from actual trips taken by the California-Mexico Studies Center, which worked with CalRep to produce the play. The parole system allows dreamers to travel to return to the U.S. after travelling abroad.

The bulk of the story is taken up by this journey as we follow the students travelling across the border, and the respective struggles each person deals with as a result. One woman is meeting her father for the first time, another visiting her mother who lives in poverty, realizing there’s nothing she can do to help her. This also provides the emotional drive for the play, as we watch families reunite and come to terms with their situation. You can hear the quiet sniffles of the students slowly realize that this unfamiliar place is their home as well as America. They belong here and there; aqui y alla.

After spending time with their families, it’s time to make the trek back across the border. We feel the fear and anxiety as the room is flooded with sounds of metal detectors and men shouting orders. This comes to a climax when one of the students is taken into a separate process where she is interrogated and moved around while her peers must wait in uncertainty.

There seems to be a glimpse of hope once the students return to their families. They have a new sense of cultural appreciation and belonging, they feel as though they’ve discovered a new part of themselves. This feeling is cut short when a sound bite of the news of Trump formally announcing the end of DACA – which happened just Tuesday night – is played, and the students have a new fear to face.

Rather than focusing on the bad news, the play makes the choice to call the audience to action, telling them what steps they can take in the next couple of months to make a difference. One woman declares, “they call us dreamers, as if that’s all we’re ever supposed to do, but at some point action needs to follow.”

The call to action is presented in a less conventional method, we take a momentarily leave from the characters and are taken to a town hall meeting with U.S. Congressman Alan Lowenthal. Here we watch the audience ask Lowenthal questions about the fate of the bill and what we can do to help as Californians. He claims that although we are a largely blue state, we will be the battleground for the DACA fight in the upcoming months, and urges the audience to volunteer in any way possible.

We never truly return to the characters and their stories — because it’s still taking place. Three of the actors explain that they went on the actual trip to Mexico with the Deferred Action recipients, saw their experiences and pain as “privileged individuals who were born here [America].” The audience is hit with the realization that this story goes beyond the small theater; the lives that are affected by this bill are people who sit with us in classrooms and plays, people who act in those plays.

The breaking of the fourth wall presents an effective way of humanizing the issue of DACA, showing us that each of these stories — 800,000 across the nation — are more than statistics, it’s different for every person.

The play makes it a point not to come back to the character’s stories, emphasizing that these lives are still hanging in the balance dependent upon votes and political decisions.

The creative stage decisions bring together all the details of the play by making the characters and issue stand out more than the setting and costumes. A mostly empty stage is brought to life by a few dozen boxes the actors rearrange throughout the play to accommodate each scene.

“Dreamers” is a rare breed of media that uses the perspective and experiences from Deferred Action recipients to create a moving conversation, one that is nowhere near finished.

“Dreamers” will be playing at the Cal State Long Beach Studio Theater through Feb. 25. There will be an Inside Look with the collaborators Feb. 22 following the show.

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