All are welcome: Theatre CHS repurposes immigrants’ poetry, prose for unprecedented play

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“Dreaming America: A Devised Theater Performance” will take place at Charlottesville High School Black Box Theater for one night only on Tuesday, September 18 at 7pm as part of Welcoming Week. A panel discussion with poetry book editor Seth Michelson will follow. While free, the event will offer donation opportunities to benefit the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition. Photo by Mohammad Alsheikha “Dreaming America: A Devised Theater Performance” will take place at Charlottesville High School Black Box Theater for one night only on Tuesday, September 18 at 7pm as part of Welcoming Week. A panel discussion with poetry book editor Seth Michelson will follow. While free, the event will offer donation opportunities to benefit the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition. Photo by Mohammad Alsheikha

By Caroline Hockenbury

Freedom is ringing, but that’s because youth are belting about it on stage, deconstructing it on Twitter, and demanding it—at full-tilt—at student-led protests. The next generation’s cries for justice buzz in every ear.

Charlottesville High School theater students are merging their voices with teens across the country who, simply put, expect more from America. With a one-night-only performance the night of Tuesday, September 18, Theatre CHS will propel the otherwise choked voices of Latinx teen immigrants by reimagining the poems collected in Dreaming America: Voices of Undocumented Youth in Maximum-Security Detention for the stage.

Dreaming America, penned by adolescents confined to isolation cells in a Staunton maximum-security detention center, is a book of bilingual poetry oscillating between imagination and anguish. Using the unaltered text as a skeleton for a script, Theatre CHS students thoughtfully wove speech snippets, musical riffs, and movement between the ribs of the poems, first produced in weekly writing workshops with Washington and Lee University Professor Seth Michelson at the detention center.

Co-directors and CHS seniors Mila Cesaretti and Evelyn McKenney selected most of the cast from the Theatre CHS program, but to fill the remaining roles, they resorted to sending email blasts and pinging peers on social media platforms. They snatched up sophomore Mohammad Alsheikha via Instagram direct message (or “DM,” as they say).

Alsheikha, who fled his home country of Syria in 2014 and immigrated to the U.S., hears snags of his own experience in the lines spilled on stage. One of the show’s sequences features a gut-wrenching monologue about a teen parting from her dog, cutely dubbed “the dude” (the revery is quickly suffocated by sound effects of police dogs’ snarls); Alsheikha recalls fighting off stray dogs during a three-day desert stay at the Syria-Jordan border. As for later lines underscoring the senseless loss of children? “There was this day when I was fourteen [when] I went to my job, and there was a jet [that] attacked people,” Alsheikha says. “I saw girls and boys and men and women on the floor dying.”

The set is hauntingly bare, barring a few benches, black boxes, a single desk, and blue tape gridding the floor. “I see beautiful things, but I can’t touch them,” one actor moans. “When I think of my future, I think of leaving this place,” another aches. Lights hang overhead, looming like lamps in an interrogation room, their eerie hum completing the space’s transformation from simple stage to detention center.

In presenting these poems to the public, Cesaretti and McKenney hope to spark conversations that might otherwise be swallowed up by the comfortable chaos of daily American life. “By sitting and being indifferent toward this problem or reading the news and not deeply caring, then you, in a sense, are a part of the problem,” says McKenney.

Cesaretti adds that reframing your perspective may be as simple as switching up the crowd you sit with at lunch or engaging daily with community members with backgrounds different than your own.

In a city—and state—strengthened by the presence of countless immigrants, McKenney argues it is critical for us to familiarize ourselves with “what’s going on in our own backyard.”

Delivering words written by incarcerated children proves an emotionally taxing endeavor for these student actors. Instead of getting bogged down by despair, though, the cast opts to focus on the change-inspiring intent of the play instead. “When we think about…what we have the potential of doing with a show like this, then…that glimmer of hope [prevails],” says McKenney.

The opening musical moment, an intimate conversation between one guitar and two lilting voices, inverts the lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” to pose a pressing question: “Is this land made for you and me?” The cast and crew of this homegrown performance are ushering in hope for a new day, when the response to this question will be an unmistakable, resounding “Sí.”

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