Silicon Valley Theatre Scene Bristles with Political Edge in the Age of Trump

In 'Airport Insecurity,' produced by Naatak, a Silicon Valley tech worker enters a 48-hour personal nightmare after his travel documents were stolen while he napped at Frankfurt Airport. (Photo: Courtesy of Sharma Podila)

In 2011, Vikas Dhurka made a stupid mistake. The playwright and tech industry worker fell asleep in the Lufthansa business lounge at Frankfurt Airport -- with his phone, wallet and all his travel documents sitting on the table next to him. When he woke up, they were all gone. What followed was a misadventure so dramatic, Dhurka decided to transform his experience into a new play, Airport Insecurity.

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Although the Silicon Valley-based Naatak theater company didn't originally intend the play to have political consequences, artistic director Sujit Saraf says it now speaks to a visceral fear people have about their ability to travel in to and out of the United States. "Once you start coming for people for weird reasons which have to do with their race or religion or ethnic background, at some point, no one is safe," Saraf says.

A travel nightmare

Dhurka is an Indian citizen, working in the United States on a green card as the senior director of product marketing at Pixelworks, a semiconductor company. At the time of his misadventure, Dhurka had lived and worked in Silicon Valley for more than a decade. But without the documents proving he belonged in the U.S., he was told to book a flight to India and prepare for a long wait -- up to two months. You can just imagine the phone call to his heavily pregnant wife in Fremont, about to give birth to their first child, alone.

Priya Kumar, played by Devika Ashok, waits impatiently by the phone as her husband struggles to get back home in Airport Insecurity, produced by the Santa Clara-based theater company Naatak.
Priya Kumar, played by Devika Ashok, waits impatiently by the phone as her husband struggles to get back home in 'Airport Insecurity,' produced by the Santa Clara-based theater company Naatak. (Photo: Courtesy of Sharma Podila)

Fortunately, after 48 harrowing hours in Frankfurt, a friendly agent from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security helped Dhurka make it back in time for the birth of his baby boy.

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But now, with President Trump's administration targeting a growing list of people, as well as the H-1B visa program tech companies use to employ thousands of Indians, the Indian community in the San Francisco Bay Area is on edge. "A document becomes your identity in a land that you kinda don’t belong in," Dhurka says. "And once that piece of paper goes away, you’re a nobody!"

Silicon Valley theater takes stronger political edge

Current events have made Naatak's play feel politically prescient. But the Pear Theatre in Mountain View was looking for something overtly political when it scheduled Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge last November, during the run-up to the election.

In the below 1987 interview with the BBC, Arthur Miller describes the context of the Italian community depicted in the play, including a large number of illegal immigrants. "They felt themselves separated from the vast majority of Americans," Miller says, "by language, by background, and on the waterfront, by the kind of work they did." But their compatriots were starving in Italy. "America was all there was."

A View From the Bridge tells the story of Eddie, who provides safe haven to two illegal immigrants related to his wife until one takes a shine to his niece.

Director Ray Renati loves the way the themes in this classic reverberate with present-day politics, and not just on the issue of immigration. "Eddie’s a bully," Renati says. "No one dares to go against anything that Eddie says, or he will make sure that you pay. Donald Trump does the same thing."

With A View From the Bridge, Arthur Miller’s politically astute storytelling feels as compelling today as it was in 1955, when the play was written.

In a similar vein, Ayad Ahktar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced feels ripped from the headlines. Though it was written long before Trump’s proposed Muslim ban, the drama bristles with rage and despair, as the progressive, liberal, well-to-do Muslim-American character at the play's center buckles under the weight of prejudice. It's not an accident Disgraced is one of the country’s most produced plays, according to American Theatre Magazine’s annual Top 10 List.

A Manhattan dinner party starts off in a celebratory mood, before the conversation devolves into tribal politics, in Disgraced, finishing a run at the San Jose Stage Company.
A Manhattan dinner party starts off in a celebratory mood, before the conversation devolves into tribal politics, in Disgraced, finishing a run at the San Jose Stage Company. (Photo: Courtesy of Dave Lepori)

Disgraced is currently finishing its run at the San Jose Stage Company, where artistic director Randall King says American culture is at a critical boiling point, and the theater, because it’s nimble and visceral, is well-equipped to foster an enlightened political discussion. "We have to say something," King says. "We have to do something. I don’t think I’ve felt this sense of urgency, ever."

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Naatak's 'Airport Insecurity' runs through Saturday, Mar. 4, 2017 at the Cubberley Theatre in Palo Alto. More info here

'A View From the Bridge' runs through Sunday, Apr. 2, 2017 at the Pear Theatre in Mountain View. More info here.

'Disgraced' runs through Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017 at The Stage in San Jose. More info here.

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