Posted on Jul 22, 2013
5 out of 5
For a country that prides itself on being the Nation of Immigrants (and yes, I still see you, Native American and emancipated-slave-descended friends), we’ve sure turned nasty lately. Here’s a show that humanizes people who’ve lately been targets for potshots from America’s resurgent Right more often than they’ve been celebrated as contributors to the country’s cultural diversity.
There. I got my political headlines out of the way. But the truth is that I spent much of my little-more-than-45 minutes at City Center Stage on the edge of tears. “Anonymous: Immigrant Voices” brings us heartfelt renditions of immigrant stories from right here in River City. We have the Westport Center for the Arts to thank — and director Sheilah Philip in particular — for bringing this show to the heart of the city.
Playwright Cecelia Lopez wrote the “Anonymous” script as her final project for an honors program at Johnson County Community College, whence she graduated in May. As her show opens, the main title is spelled out in big white letters on the backs of the black T-shirts worn by the nine-member cast, whose faces we literally cannot see at that point. One by one, they move downstage and reveal just what kind of person each one of them is.
I opened with political polemic, but these “Immigrant Voices” are particular, personal, and passionate. They are in fact drawn from interviews. Philip explained to me afterwards that Lopez wrote a couple of short plays at JCCC, then was encouraged by a professor to do more interviews. In a show I could have enjoyed more of, we hear the stories of nine individuals from El Salvador, Guatemala, India, Iran, Mexico, and Thailand, now living in our city. Most never name their country of origin, indicated by white maps silkscreened on the fronts of those black T-shirts.
What is most striking about this show is the passionate identification of each actor with the real-life character being portrayed. In one case — as she reveals in her program bio — this identification could not be closer: Isamara Cortés Cruz tells her own story as an immigrant from Mexico. But her personal passion is matched by everyone else in the company, which combines familiar faces from the Kanas City stage (Walter Coppage, Sherri Roulette-Mosley, and Vi Tran) with up-and-comers (Armando Herrera, Atul Kulkarni, Sarah Montoya, and Erika Crane Ricketts). Isamara mentions no earlier stage experience than having lived her part, but we are told that the ninth actor was making her stage debut: Isabella Gonzalez, whose life-drama will bring her debut as a 3rd grader this fall.
Isabella gets a workout here, as family figures prominently in these stories, and some of these parents, after baring their souls, really need a hug. (I could have used one myself — and would happily have shared one — at certain points in most people’s stories.) Days of suffering through hunger, cold, fear, in transit — following years that compelled the person to leave. No one came to this country on a lark. Trains were jumped, guards were evaded and confronted, a refugee camp survived. But hope drew each one on, and a wish to make a home. One ends her story saying, “It is easy to forget I was not born here. I became of this place.”
But the difficulty and contradictions of life as an immigrant in the United States of the 21st Century are not absent. As one character prepares to retire to his upstage stool, to listen with us to four more immigrant stories after telling of his courageous struggle to get to the nation he dreamed and the life hoped for, he turns to confide, “"Now I think it would have been better to die.”
Mainly, though, these are stories that uplift and inspire, breaking the anonymity of immigrant life. We are blessed, through the theater, with the triumph one immigrant boasts of: “I now have the greatest power that all of you possess: my voice!”
Hear these immigrant’s voices in their second and third Fringe performances, Thursday and Saturday evenings in Union Station.