When eight young actors from the Cry Havoc Theater company traveled to the US-Mexico border a few months ago over the high school students’ spring break, they didn’t know what to expect. Yes, they had heard what people–government officials, news outlets, family members–were saying, and, yes, they anticipated poor conditions. The reality was devastating: administrative chaos, broken judicial systems, exhausted volunteers, scarce resources, countless broken families. Motivated by their life-changing experiences, Cry Havoc, in co-production with Kitchen Dog Theater, presents Crossing the Line, a documentary-style verbatim play driven by the people closest to the crisis. Their voices, their stories.
Crossing the Line is not Cry Havoc’s first devised composition based on interviews, or even the first one to prompt the company to travel for said interviews. In terms of subject matter, Cry Havoc does not shy away from provocative teen theater. Gun violence, body shaming, and sexual impropriety are some of the contentious topics to hit the local theater’s stage. Now, it grapples with the ever-polarizing issue of immigration, though the play focuses less on the policy itself and more on the migrants at the will of it.
“We all came back pretty shocked. Originally, this show was very much going to be about the immigration debate, but because of our experience at the border, it’s less about policy and conversations around policy and more about what we’re doing to people,” says Mara Richards Bim, Cry Havoc’s artistic director and founder. “The public defender we spoke to said that this is the darkest period in U.S. history, I think that that’s probably accurate.”
During the trip, the group visited detention centers, sat in on immigration court proceedings, volunteered with the Catholic Charities Respite Center in McAllen, brought food and water to migrants in Mexico seeking asylum. All along the way, the actors and directors interviewed judges, ICE officials, charity workers, lawyers, migrant families, a priest, and a reporter, just to name a few. The testimonies amounted to more than 200 hundred hours of audio recordings. Less than one percent would make it into the final two-hour show.
As a verbatim play, these interviews are the backbone of the show. The script is based entirely on interview transcriptions. In other words, we are seeing representations of people, not characters, and the actors do well in their seamless transitions from one role to the next. From the composed, yet seemingly apathetic, statement of the ICE official to the hopeful remarks of a 17-year-old migrant at a detention center, the actors are not just describing the crisis at the border–they take you there.
The play is divided into several scenes. Act 1, titled “Politics,” fittingly opens with a conversation between Tim Johnson (played by Landon Robinson) and Media Director of FAIR, Ira Mehlman (Joshua Bowman). Words such as “unfeasible” and “unsustainable” echo across the stage. Act 2, titled “People,” moves away from policy and towards the migrants’ stories. Though the entire act is hard-hitting, the company saves the dramatically best, and heartbreakingly tragic, sequence for last: child separation.
I’ll be honest, I cried. It’s hard not to, and I wasn’t alone. The anger, desperation, and grief reflected in the voices of each person are incredibly visceral. On the drive home, while still emotionally recovering, something actor M. Bandy said during the post-show talkback stuck with me.
“We were never told to search all over the news for things happening with immigration, but when you start talking about it and you start meeting these people, it becomes your life,” Bandy says. “You feel prompted automatically just to go home and like, on your free time, check the news and see what’s happening down there. Everything that happened, it’s real, it’s there.”
One thing we can do, at the very least, is be aware and continue the conversation. Crossing the Line runs through August 4, 2019, at the Trinity River Arts Center. Admission as follows: $25 for adults, $20 for students and seniors.