A couple of weeks ago, I received an email with a link to a trailer for “Crossing the Line,” an upcoming documentary play about immigration co-produced by Cry Havoc Theater Company and Kitchen Dog Theater. It’s emotional stuff. (You can watch the trailer below.)
The eight actors are all Dallas-area high school students. Mara Richards Bim, Cry Havoc founder and artistic director, and Tim Johnson, managing director of Kitchen Dog Theater, took them on a pilgrimage to the Rio Grande Valley over spring break in order to collect first-person interviews. Those interviews will become the dialogue for the play.
This is the first co-production of Cry Havoc and Kitchen Dog, but this is not the first time Cry Havoc has tackled an issue of cultural relevance through documentary-style theater. Last year the theater company produced “Babel,” a play about gun violence derived from interviews with parents of children lost in school shootings, gun control advocates, and elected officials.
Johnson says this year’s show draws from more than twice the material. I sat down to talk with him and two of the student actors, M. Bandy and Leonela Arguello, about what the experience was like. Bandy is a recent graduate of W.T. White High School and will be heading to Bennington College in the fall; Arguello is a junior at Booker T. Washington High School. “Crossing the Line” runs from July 19 to August 4 at the Trinity River Arts Center. You can purchase tickets here.
D: So, explain this process to me. How did you turn a spring break trip to the border into a play?
Bandy: It’s a verbatim piece, so we interview people. This year we traveled to the Rio Grande Valley to interview people about this issue. And then we take those interviews—exactly what the people are saying—and we compile them, cut them, and create this piece about immigration. I think it’s very important that we collect all sides of this issue.
Johnson: Mara came to us a little earlier in the year last year, and we started talking. We agreed we wanted to do a co-production, and, at the time, she was interested in doing something about sex trafficking. It had been an issue that had been really important to her. As we continued our conversations, all the child separation things came to light, and so we thought this was more relevant.
We started with Bill Holston, who runs the Human Rights Initiative, which provides pro bono legal work for immigrants, and then Betsy Healy, who is the executive director at the Harold Simmons Foundation. She founded HRI, so she’s really knowledgeable about that community. We met with her, and between the two of them, they opened up a lot of doors for us, and then it just kept building from there.
Arguello: I think for the majority of us, it was our first time working with Cry Havoc and Kitchen Dog. I went to the audition, and when they told me I was accepted in for the show on immigration, I was like, “OK. Well, that’s really cool.” That’s something that is obviously really important to me and my family, but I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I did know that there was a trip to the border; I guess I hadn’t placed in my mind how soon it was. Our first meeting was a Saturday, then the following weekend we left for the Rio Grande Valley.
Bandy: I don’t know exactly what I was expecting. You read the news all the time, and you see all of these things that are happening that are absolutely atrocious, but I think it’s a lot easier to disconnect from it when you’re not hearing it from someone and having Bill Holston say, “Okay, so these are the horrors that are happening. These are the atrocities that our government is committing or our government is allowing.” Then he alluded to, “And then this is what you’re going to see at the border.” Hearing that and seeing it, I don’t think anyone could ever mentally prepare for it.
I got very sensitive to kids and just the sounds of someone being distressed. There’s a tactic we used called being an observer, and it’s observing and taking all of the information in without drawing an emotional connection to it. I don’t think I got that down until the middle of the week, which wasn’t really good, because the majority of the very emotionally distressing stuff was at the beginning of the week.
Johnson: Mara has a psychologist on her board, and because of her experience with Babel, both for herself and with the kids, she was really cognizant that we need to be very aware about secondary trauma. So this psychologist came in and met with us for a couple of hours and actually talked through a lot of techniques in terms of how to deal with that stuff. I have experience with trauma work, so we were really cognizant through the week of what we needed to do to process, and put on hold, and navigate what was going to happen. But again, I would agree you don’t know what you’re into until you’re into it.
Arguello: The way our days worked, we would do the interviews, we would meet people, we would see things, we would go back to the hotel, and we would debrief. It was like when you were there talking to people, it wasn’t sad in the moment, but it would hit afterwards. It was heartbreaking. It was just—it was like I didn’t know how to walk, if that makes any sense.
I remember really early on in the week, I told Tim, I was like, “You know, I thought this was going to be a lot sadder.” I found out later in the week that it was because the people we had surrounded ourselves with in the moment, the people we were talking to, they weren’t sad. They were hopeful, so there’s no way for you to be sad when you’re around a lot of hope, and love, and family, and friendship. But then when you leave, and you look at it from the outside, and you say, “Wow, they are so hopeful. They are so loving. They are so kind, and they’re in these conditions,” that’s when it’s like, “Why?”
D: How did you get access to even do the interviews?
Johnson: We connected with Terri Burke, who’s the head of the ACLU in Texas, and she connected us with the ACLU person on the ground in Brownsville. He was incredible, and he thought the project had value in terms of getting the information out, and so he really opened up a lot of doors for us. We did everything.
We went to what’s called Baby Court. It’s Child Protection Court. We went to criminal court. While we were at criminal court, the federal judge heard we were in the building and asked us to come upstairs to the federal level court. We met with the public defender, federal public defender’s office. We had a unique opportunity to go to a mass at a church and were allowed to have some pretty extensive interaction with a group of teens who were in detention. We also went to Catholic Charities. That was day one. Boy, talk about dropping into the middle of it. We went to the respite center.
Bandy: We went over to Matamoros. And spoke to ICE as well. I think it was that same day. We crossed the bridge and we talked to the people that were on the other side of the bridge, waiting to be let in. I don’t even think we took a lunch break. We had to find the ICE building, and we talked to the officers. It was so disturbing. But in the moment, when you’re around people and they’re very chill, and they’re very connected to their beliefs, you don’t really think about what they’re saying while they’re saying it. But then I think all of us were like, “Oh, they seemed like very nice people.” Then we thought about what they said. “Did they just say that child separations were babysitting? What?” Not a joke.
Arguello: We also met with the people who do the water drops.
D: What was that like?
Arguello: It was one of the things that gave me hope. Everything else was just so draining, like there’s nothing to do. How do you help? Then we went on the water drop, and it just gave me a sense of, “Okay, you know what? There are good people in this world, and we’re going to fix it eventually.”
It was cute, because we got these gallons of water. [Arguello starts to tear up.] I’m sorry, my voice breaks every single time. We left messages on the gallons of water to inspire them, or maybe just in the hope that message would, I don’t know, bring them some type of comfort that they needed after a really long trip.
It was only two women and then the guy who started the organization, the three of them basically all alone doing that. They do that so well, and they’re so efficient, and they work so hard. They’re so focused.
Then they would just tell us about finding bodies. She showed us a picture of this man who had been eaten. It looked like he had just died; his body wasn’t drying up. Yet his face and his lower stomach area had been eaten by animals, so it was very disturbing. And they see this very often, and they just have to keep going.
I was so thankful to them. We take water for granted, but really, these people need it. They’re thirsty. They’re dehydrated. Then they would tell us stories about the people traveling leaving things at the water drops for another person who might need it, and it was like even the people who are traveling, even these immigrants still have the heart to think somebody else who might be traveling might need this later.
D: So you experience all of this, and you talk to all of these people, and then you have to come home and figure out how you’re going to turn it all into a play.
Johnson: Yeah, so everything’s verbatim. In addition to all the interviews we did, we also debriefed every night and frequently right afterwards in the car, so all that material is recorded as well. Mara and I, for the past month and a half, have been working on transcripts. We have a 5-hour script, so now we’re in the process of taking that down to 2 hours. But we had over 200 hours worth of audio material to go through, which is twice what we had last year. We’re going to end up with 1 percent of the material we have in the show.
D: What do you feel is your most important takeaway that you hope stays in the production?
Arguello: At least for me, it’s the love that these people carry, because I think before this trip, I cared about this issue already. It’s something that hits really close to home, and it’s something that I already knew, that these people are human, and we say it all the time, like, “They’re human, just like us. They deserve better.” But then when you meet them and when you see them, those sentences hold meaning. They’re human means so much more to me now, so I think that’s what the show, at least for me, is what I want people to understand, that they are genuinely just like us, maybe even better. Who knows? They’re just filled with love, and kindness, and just this drive that is unseen here, because they have to fight for what they want and to survive.
Bandy: I think the real importance and significance is bearing witness to all of this. A lot of people complain on the internet like, “Oh, so you’re reading this article and you’re talking about these issues, but what are you actually doing?” That really infuriates me, because being aware and talking about these issues is how these things spark change, and a lot of people, when I told them I was going down to the border and that I was going to be a part of this project, they were like, “Okay, but are y’all actually doing anything down there? Like are you helping any charities?”
I didn’t know how to respond, because initially I was convinced that I was actually not doing anything for a little bit there, and then I saw how just us talking to people really impacted them, and they would be very emotional, saying, “You guys are doing good work. You are changing this community already, and by talking about this and by spreading this truth to people, you are changing the world in some way.”
If anything comes through in this show, I think it’s the importance of being a witness, and being aware, and not being hesitant to talk about these issues. There’s no shame in being aware. There’s no shame in knowing what’s happening and talking about it. You’re doing good by knowing.