A New Play In LA Tells The True Stories Of Immigrants Fighting Deportation
At the Fountain Theater in Hollywood, an ominous knocking is heard as actor Liana Aráuz, center stage, speaks to the audience. Her character, a woman in her 50s named Melida, is sharing a recollection.
“I still get nightmares,” she says, as the knocking continues. “It was May 18th. Nine-fifty in the morning. I was about to get in the shower when I heard—”
At that moment, actor Theo Perkins comes in and shouts, “ICE!”
The story of Melida, a Guatemalan immigrant and longtime legal resident, is one of many shared in Detained, which premieres Saturday.
Melida is based on a real person. So are most of the characters in Detained who tell their stories against the cinder-block backdrop of a detention center.
The play, directed by Mark Valdez, has a unique backstory: It’s a collaboration between a playwright who’s the daughter of Haitian immigrants and a veteran immigration attorney.
The idea for Detained came from Judy Rabinovitz, a deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants' Rights Project. The characters are based on people whose cases Rabinovitz had seen over the years and who were trying to navigate a complex immigration system few Americans understand.
Telling The Stories Of ‘Invisible’ People
“I think the goal always was just to have these stories told,” Rabinovitz said via Zoom from New York, where she lives. “The sense that these people were invisible, that all this stuff was happening and people didn't know about it.”
Rabinovitz, who once worked in documentary film, initially thought about that kind of approach. But several years ago, she decided on a play.
“It felt like it would be sort of more visceral,” she said. “So I thought about it for a long time and then I started collecting stories. I just pulled together all these stories and all these ring binders of stuff. And then I just felt like, Okay, I can't do this. I need to find a partner.”
That partner became France-Luce Benson, an award-winning playwright and actor whose work is deeply influenced by her Haitian roots. The two connected about eight years ago and began going over the material.
Benson grew up in Miami, surrounded by immigrants. But she soon learned there was a lot she didn’t know about immigration policies.
“I think there are a lot of people that, myself included, weren't aware of just how many people were being held in immigration detention, and how many of them were longtime residents of the United States,” Benson said.
‘No Idea’ Veterans Could Be Deported
That last point is something Detained aims to drive home. Throughout the play, a character who’s an immigration lawyer — an amalgam of Rabinovitz and another attorney — provides commentary and details about the immigration system, helping the audience better understand who the roughly 20,000 people in the nation’s detention centers are.
The lawyer informs us about the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, a 1996 law that made it easier to deport legal U.S. residents if convicted of certain crimes, including some relatively minor offenses.
Benson was shocked to learn that military veterans can be deported under that law. “I had no idea,” she said.
It’s why she wanted to include the true story of Warren in the play. He’s a Gulf War veteran born in Trinidad, portrayed in Detained by actor Will Dixon.
During a recent rehearsal, Warren paces the stage, telling fellow detainees about how his U.S. Army unit was among the first sent to Iraq in 1990.
“I spent eight years in the military, and in those eight years, I saw things I would not wish on anyone,” Warren says. “But at the same time, I would do it all again.”
Upon his discharge, Warren struggles with problems such as PTSD and addiction. He gets in trouble while moving out of state to live with his mother. He owns guns, which police find in his car — and he’s charged with illegally transporting weapons. Because he’s only a legal resident — not a citizen — he’s deportable.
“Eight years of military service,” Warren mourns, “and it just didn’t matter … I guess it’s ok for me to die for this country — I just can’t live here.”
Emotional Rehearsals: ‘Because It’s Personal’
Like the characters they play, most of the cast members are people of color. Some are children of immigrants, or immigrants themselves. They play a variety of characters, not only the detained immigrants, but immigration agents and family members.
“The rehearsal process has been very emotional because it's personal,” said Valdez, the director. “We know all of these characters … they're part of our families. And so when you have to bring these stories to life and embody them, it’s really difficult, it gets really emotional.”
That’s evident as Liana Aráuz rehearses the ICE visit scene as Melida — whose story, like Warren’s, is real.
We learn that Melida, who’d lived in the U.S. for 30 years, thought she had done everything right: she had a green card and a citizenship application in the works, a daughter who adored her, and a good union job she was proud of as a roofer in New York City.
But many years ago, Melida and her boyfriend had been pulled over. Police found marijuana on him. It was her car, so she was charged, too. And now, years later, she learns from the ICE agent at her door that her citizenship application pulled up a red flag.
Aráuz, as Melida, frantically shouts as she argues with the agent, who has orders to arrest her. “What about this citizenship letter?” she says. “I had just passed the test. I was about to become a U.S. citizen!"
Aráuz is herself a naturalized citizen, born in Nicaragua.
During a break from rehearsal, she said it’s true — playing characters such as Melida is difficult, because it hits home.
“I know women like the women that I'm playing,” said Aráuz, whose other characters include an asylum seeker from Colombia and another military veteran. “So there's a lot of sense of responsibility to get it right, and give them a voice.”
She said she also understands what it’s like to flee violence and political upheaval, both of which Nicaragua has experienced over the years.
“I know very well the reasons why some of these people leave their country,” Aráuz said. “And what people don’t understand is that people don’t leave their country because they want to. Sometimes they have no choice.”
Theo Perkins, who plays the ICE agent, also plays a young immigrant from Guinea and an immigrant from Eritrea who’s graduated from Columbia University.
Perkins said while he didn’t grow up in an immigrant family, as a Black actor, the play still feels personal.
“It’s easy to tap into the feeling of being on the opposite end of a power dynamic,” he said, “getting caught up in a system that is not working.”
Some of the real people behind the characters were deported, Rabinovitz said, among them a man with mental health issues who could not represent himself well in immigration court. But others did win their cases, with the help of legal representation.
Both Melida and Warren, for example, are now U.S. citizens, Rabinovitz said. But both endured lengthy detention as they fought their cases, Melida for seven months, and Warren for three years.
Detained is set to run through April 10.