Plays Offer Immigration Insights to Audiences and Lawmakers

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American Conservatory Theatre

The musical, "Stuck Elevator," continues at the American Conservatory Theatre through April 28.

Meet Luis and Guang. Luis is from Mexico, Guang from China, but they have a lot in common.

They’re both physically trapped — Luis by a brushfire in a cave in the play "The River"; Guang is stuck on a broken elevator in the musical "Stuck Elevator."  And both men have entered the U.S. illegally.  
“He’s an anonymous immigrant man,” says "The River" playwright Richard Montoya. “Faceless, voiceless, that part of humanity that we have most vilified … after the Taliban and al-Qaida.”  
Just as the Senate begins considering an immigration bill that would provide a path to citizenship for many immigrants in this country illegally, two world premiere plays are asking audiences to think about the lives of these immigrants.
Luis’s story is at the heart of Montoya’s play "The River," even though Luis appears only as a ghost or in flashbacks. The heat and smoke from the brushfire has killed him -- something that really happened to a number of immigrants in eastern San Diego County in 2007.
“How many of Dante’s rings,” Montoya asks, “are set before us like a hurdle, and people have to go through that." 
In Montoya’s play, immigration is like a series of trials in purgatory, with citizenship waiting in heaven.
In the musical "Stuck Elevator," the metaphor for immigration is an elevator.
“We have the idea that America is an elevator. That we will be elevated,” says "Stuck Elevator" librettist Aaron Jafferis.
“That idea drives so many people to come here. The reality is so much different, and so many people do get stuck.”
Guang is literally stuck. He delivers Chinese food in New York. But on one delivery, the elevator stops between floors for 81 hours -- something that really happened to an undocumented Chinese deliveryman in 2005.  
Guang is afraid to press the intercom and call for help, Jafferis says, for fear the police will discover his immigration status.
That’s part of his plight. Because deportation would be the worst thing that could happen, next to death.”
The worst thing, because Guang won’t be able to pay off the debt he owes the snakehead -- the smuggler who got him into the US -- or to support his son and wife back in China.
I asked these artists if their plays offer a lesson for lawmakers.
"Stuck Elevator" composer Byron Au Yong says he’s more interested in how theater can arouse a thoughtful discussion for the audience, “And not be yelling at each other. But rather maybe come to an understanding with each other.  And hopefully that will carry to the lawmakers."
"Stuck Elevator" taps into one of America’s master narratives, that we are a nation built by immigrants. In the play, one of Guang’s undocumented coworkers tells him, “Immigrant is the opposite of impossible.”
Mixing politics and theater is old hat for "The River" playwright Richard Montoya. As a member of the theater troupe Culture Clash, he specializes in social satire. Montoya says he’s encouraged by the Senate bill, but worried its tough standards will leave some immigrants still stuck in a legal limbo.
“For those who can cross every one of those hurdles, things will be fine. But those who can’t will go further and further into the shadows, and in the shadows is where we find our Luis.”
And Montoya offers another way to think about the immigration debate. The last line in "The River" is an old Mexican saying: “That which you cannot drink or carry, leave in the river.”  
Montoya explains the saying this way. “When my Dad and his generation ate around the kitchen table,  you didn’t take a whole tortilla.  You took a tortilla, split it in half, and you left the half. And to this day I have that same habit, even if I’m eating alone, I’ll rip it in half. And it comes from that idea - leave half behind for someone else.”
The line defines the difference, Montoya says, between those who think immigrants take American jobs and benefits without offering anything in return -- and those who think immigrants enrich the U.S., with more than enough to go around.  
"Stuck Elevator" continues at the American Conservatory Theatre through April 28.
"The River," a co-production of Intersection for the Arts and Campo Santo, continues at A.C.T's Costume Shop through May 4. 
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