When Children’s Theatre Company asked Carlos Murillo to craft a new drama about the so-called “dreamers” two years ago, neither the Minneapolis theater nor the Chicago playwright had any idea it would be staged at a time when the immigration debate is scaldingly hot.
“I Come From Arizona,” which premieres this week, draws its title from a phrase that becomes a mantra for the undocumented parents of a Mexican-American family: If authorities stop and question you about your immigration status, tell them you come from Arizona.
CTC is using this prophetic programming to deepen its ties to its audience, reach out to broader communities and delicately finger an exposed nerve, all while telling a compelling story.
The play fits into the broad mission of the nation’s largest theater company for youth and family, which does not shy away from weighty or sensitive subjects.
Its other current show, the musical “Last Stop on Market Street,” swirls around issues of class and homelessness. Themes of bullying and being an outsider were evident in “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” which bowed in 2016. Its touring show “Seedfolks” is about disparate neighbors coming together around an urban garden. “Dr. Seuss’ The Sneetches” dealt with prejudice. And misfit youngsters were at the center of “The Wong Kids in the Secret of the Space Chupacabra Go!”
“Our goal is to create extraordinary theater that educates, challenges and inspires young people,” said Children’s Theatre artistic director Peter Brosius, who commissioned Murillo’s play. “Pieces like ‘Arizona’ are a gift to the community because they provide a space to wrestle with complex issues. Young people can think deeply, feel profoundly, laugh heartily and come up with their own conclusions about things facing us today.”
The play’s narrative is set in motion when the father has to return to Mexico for a funeral just as his 14-year-old daughter, Gabi, wins a place in an elite high school. That opportunity also presents quandaries. One comes from Gabi’s global perspectives class, where an assignment leads to revelations about her parents and her own past, unsettling a teen who must find her own sources of strength to survive.
Murillo began his research for “Arizona” in 2012 by interviewing people in Chicago’s predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood of Pilsen. From those “story circles,” he wrote a play called “Augusta and Noble.” That work, which was favorably received, had dream sequences mixed in with realistic ones.
Brosius liked the play well enough, but wanted to lose the fantasy element. He thought the play should be more grounded, “with less room for the audience to escape,” Murillo recalled.
So the playwright went back to the drawing board, and re-interviewed his sources for what we now know as “Arizona.”
“Immigration reform has been a topic for years, and when I started on this, I was kind of hoping that the topic, not my play, would become obsolete,” said Murillo, who teaches at DePaul University in Chicago. “But the situation is really dire now, as you can see from the news. All I wanted to do was show a family going through this [experience] as human beings.”
To broaden its community engagement for this show, the theater is teaming up with Advocates for Human Rights, which helps immigrants navigate the court system, and its own Concejo Latino (Latino Council). It has scheduled a panel discussion on immigration for Oct. 20.
But even as he tries to expand the conversation, Brosius makes it clear that CTC’s primary focus is on the play itself, bringing people together to “share a moving experience and have a conversation.”
Theme of family separation
Some of the themes that inform the play include the insecurity and heightened vulnerability of those living in the shadows. In “Arizona,” the mother remains with her kids. But she’s lost a partner and she’s hesitant to do seemingly simple things that may put her at risk, such as signing permission forms or going to school to support her children.
In a real-life case echoing the fear that drives “Arizona,” some young siblings came home from school to find that their undocumented father had been arrested in Pompano Beach, Fla., and placed in the deportation pipeline.
For actor Ayssette Muñoz, who plays daughter Gabi, “Arizona” has an eerie resonance.
“I grew up in McAllen, Texas, which is 10 minutes away from the border and not far from detention centers. I can tell you, I have a sense of living in fear about who’s knocking at your door,” she said. “If folks are undocumented, they live precariously and in constant danger. All they’re trying to do is provide for their family, but they could be snatched up by the authorities or victimized by criminals. It’s a hard place to be.”
The forced separation of the family in the play is part of a larger conversation with historical roots, said attorney Michele Garnett McKenzie, who is deputy director of the Advocates for Human Rights, an international volunteer organization that champions immigrants.
“The use of family separation is a continuing theme of American history, from slavery to Native American boarding schools to the Muslim ban,” McKenzie said.
While the big issues demand attention, this is an intimate story about people, not politics, Brosius said.
“This is a very complex, personal issue,” he said. “We live in a nation of immigrants, unless you’re Native American. So everyone has gone through that feeling of feeling unwelcomed. Xenophobia is how we’ve treated folks.”
Of the 5.6 million people who call Minnesota home, 486,243 are foreign-born, according to a 2017 U.S. Census report. While the census does not have an estimate of the undocumented, a recent Pew research report, done in conjunction with the Migration Policy Institute, estimates that about 85,000 undocumented people live in the state, with about 43,000 of those from Mexico.
The majority of them work in restaurants, on farms and in factories.
“Immigrants are key to the state’s well-being,” said Megan Elizabeth Dayton, senior projections demographer at the Minnesota State Demographic Center. “On a statewide basis, Minnesota’s population would start to decline by 2040 without international migration, and the state would start to suffer.”
Brosius also hearkened to history as he reflected on a recent hard-hat tour of the hospitals and psychiatric wards of New York City’s Ellis Island, the historic point of entry for millions of U.S. immigrants. He recalled marveling at the facilities — “at how the place was sanitized and how they entertained people there, including with Broadway stars.”
He added, “It showed a wonderful valuing and care for this population. The question is: How do you treat people who’re coming to help build your nation?”