Dallas — “Why can’t I celebrate my Turkish culture and still be American?” asks a character in Dirty Turk, aka Dirty Immigrant, the first fully formed production from the new outfit called Artstillery. It’s one of many profound questions raised in the work.
The show, which is performed on Friday and Saturday nights through Sept. 29 in a small warehouse on Fort Worth Avenue in West Dallas (or Oak Cliff, on the north side of Interstate 30, some might say) just might be the most engaging work of theater you’ll see this year: As much for the process of devising the work as for what you see in this immersive staging.
To review the show, TheaterJones editor Mark Lowry asked Teresa Marrero and Jin-Ya Huang, both of whom have personal immigrant and refugee reference points, to have a conversation about the production. Before we get into that, here’s some background about Artstillery and the process.
Artstillery is the brainchild of founding members Ilkur Ozgur and Michael Cleveland. Oznur was born in America and is of Turkish and Russian descent. Dirty Turk is a passion project that addresses cultural assimilation and racism in immigrant, migrant and refugee communities, not just in America but in their home country. The work was devised using real stories by immigrants, migrants and refugees in North Texans. The story of Ozgur’s grandparents, who were refugees from Russia who relocated to Turkey, is just one of the inspirations. The other stories used by the characters in Dirty Turk include:
- A Turkish man who was studying theater in Turkey until his performing arts school was bombed, and he moved to the U.S.
- A man who had to leave Istanbul and faced severe depression because he didn’t know how to support his family.
- A Bulgarian migrant who was sued for using terminology he didn't know was racist with coworkers. He faced many language barriers as he tried to build a future in the United States.
- Iranian refugees who had to flee the country because of violence from their countrymen.
- A family of Syrian refugees who, after the dentist father was kidnapped and held by gunpoint and told to fix soldiers’ teeth, was allowed to go back home, but continued to be persecuted. They fled Syria and now live in North Dallas.
- A Cuban immigrant, now an interior designer in Dallas, who faced racial terror as a child. Her family moved to the U.S., where she continued facing racism in the school system—not just by students, but by teachers and administrators.
- A Vietnamese immigrant who was put on a boat and sent to an island while his father searched for his mother who never returned home one day. Later the island began to flood and people tried to escape via small boats, some of which turned over and people drowned. He is now an architect in Dallas.
- A Puerto Rican man with mental health disabilities who made it to the U.S. mainland, but is currently homeless and cleans car windows to save money to send to his son in Puerto Rico.
- Mexican refugees who faced gang violence and fled to the U.S. They are unregistered and face many more difficulties as they struggle to survive here.
The Artstillery production uses these stories from people who wish to remain anonymous, told through dialogue and flashbacks by live actors and various forms of puppetry (the Vietnamese story above is depicted in a breathtaking shadow puppetry sequence). They are incorporated into the stories of the characters—Turkish immigrants in the United States—in various staging areas, inside and outside of, a small warehouse that is used by a non-denominational church that offers yoga and other programming.
Some of the performers in this production are themselves immigrants and migrants, and many of them do not have prior theater experience. Their bios on the Artstillery website detail their cultural heritage rather than their performing arts résumés.
Ozgur and her collaborators have worked with Thomas Riccio’s Dead White Zombies, which for nearly a decade has been doing this kind of immersive theater in which the audience travels in clusters through various scenes. For me, Dirty Turk is more concise than productions by DWZ, which are often fascinatingly head-scratching. It’s also different in that the scenes are performed in a relatively small warehouse space, and while some of the playing areas—such as the dining room and family areas of the grandparents’ house—remain stagnant, others shift. One area with chairs transforms into a car several times, for instance. Audiences can move around or stay seated as they wish. At times, the performers open the garage door that faces Fort Worth Avenue and use the surrounding environment effectively.
The grandparents are represented as large-scale backpack puppets created by puppeteer Noel Williams, who also conceptualized the fantastic shadow puppetry with help from Lucila Rios and Ozgur. Williams is current working on her MFA in puppetry from the University of Connecticut and has worked in the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center’s Puppetry Workshops, and elsewhere. Ozgur met her when they both worked with the Blue Man Group Chicago.
The performers in Dirty Turk are Safwan Chowdhury as Tahir, Catie Chan as Feride, Tori Hartz as Yuksel, Michael Cleveland as Adnan, Christopher Lucero as the Imam, Jonah Gutierrez as several characters, and Max Torres as Murat. The central character of Ozlem is portrayed simultaneously by Laden Bagherpour as an adult, Lucial Rojas as a teen and Ava Whatley as a child.
The performers and team represent a variety of cultural heritages, including Mexican, Bangladeshi, Turkish, Russian, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Persian, German and Korean. One is a DACA recipient. Another performer is nonbinary. Ten-year-old Whatley is of Vietnamese and Czech descent, and has been a student at Dallas Children’s Theater for five years. It represents a beautiful diversity we’d love to see more of on and behind DFW stages.
What follows is a series of questions I asked of Teresa Marrero and Jin-Ya Huang, who saw the production with me on Friday, Aug. 24.
Marrero, who has contributed to TheaterJones for more than five years, is a Professor of Latin American and Latinx Theater in the Department of Spanish at the University of North Texas. She is an advisory board member for the Latinx Theatre Commons. She has been an avid Argentine tango dancer since 2005 with dozens of trips to Buenos Aires and is a member of the American Theater Critics Association. The Cuban-born Marrero came to the United States as a child in the 1960s with her family, as refugees seeking political asylum.
Huang is a local visual artist, designer and activist who founded the group Break Bread, Break Borders, which uses the concept of social food justice and works with refugees relocated to North Texas. She is currently advising a group of Syrian refugee woman who have started a catering business. You can read more about Huang and her work here, here and here. She is also a member of the board of directors for Metropolitan Arts Media, Inc., the new non-profit that runs TheaterJones. Huang was born in Taiwan and her family moved to the U.S. when she was 13.
MARK LOWRY: Teresa and Jin-Ya, thank you for seeing Dirty Turk with me. As immigrants, your perspective is important to this piece of theater. Teresa, you came to America in the 1960s with your family as Cuban refugees; and Jin-Ya, your family emigrated from Taiwan and you currently work with refugees in DFW who are seeking asylum. Did the story of this family and these characters ring true for you, given your respective experiences?
TERESA MARRERO: First of all, Mark. I didn’t come to America. Being born in Cuba, I was already in America. I came to the United States as a child of the Cold War between the U.S. and the then U.S.S.R., after Fidel Castro ousted the U.S.-supported dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. So, like the majority of refugee cases, ours was the direct result of U.S. intervention in internal, national politics.
Absolutely, the story of this family and these characters resonated with me in a very personal way. While the historical circumstances are different, there are some life experiences of both adults and children of emigres that we all share.
I related to the child, played by the actor Ava. That small person thrown into the adults’ world having to serve as linguistic translator and cultural interpreter, often in situations way over our heads. The child was my favorite character. Ava was such an incredible actor! The delivery of her lines in such a deadpan way really hit home. Just do what needs to be done and that’s that.
Also placing the grandparents at the center of the family is a shared commonality. Our grandmothers in particular are very special. We treat our grandmothers in a similar way as I saw in this piece, with respect and a lot of love.
Issues of identity, language, and cultural retention also echoed strongly with me. Like this Turkish family, we tried to only speak Spanish at home. Like the teenage Ozlem, who doesn’t fit in anywhere, most of us who either came as children or are first generation U.S.-born face this continuing, life-long dilemma. My Spanish was never good enough for my family in Miami (I was raised in Los Angeles), my politics too liberal (also attributed to my California upbringing by my conservative Miami relatives). So, being Cuban enough, or Turkish enough or whatever, is a constant issue. It shows up in Nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican) literature, culture, and the arts. Those born and raised in New York may lose some of the language, and when they go back to the Island, they are seen as foreigners. We have this conversation with all of my students in a senior level course I developed at University of North Texas, Hispanos en los Estados Unidos. We have students from all over Latin America with these same issues. I just had this conversation in Boston with a brilliant actor from Iran. She was telling me that she has been gone for only one year, but her family tells her she seems different, not ‘warm’ enough, not loving and open as she used to be. We connected immediately past cultural and age differences.
This issue is very complex. I didn’t even know I had a hyphenated identity (Cuban-American) until reaching university, where I used it to get financial support for my graduate education. At home, we were just Cuban. Identity issues prevail in much Latinx literature and theater. We are neither from here nor from there; we are both. Coming to accept ourselves as such is a life process. Some of us eventually find that sitting on the hyphen has its advantages. We can jump strategically to either side. Identity is a process, not a fixed thing.
There was an issue of race that came up that also resonated with me. I think it was Ozlem who said she was bringing a black guy home, to date, and that raised a big family stink. I did that in my family with exactly the same reaction by my father. Not with my daughter! Even though Cuba is a very mixed race country, there is still racial prejudice, particularly in the exile community of South Florida. In Latin America in general, including Brazil which is also very mixed race with people of African descent, there is still the notion that, for blacks it is better to have a light-skinned child while for white, having a child with black features—particularly what in the streets is called pelo malo, Afro-like hair. Coincidentally, the Venezuelan film entitled Pelo Malo deals with this very issue. Mexico is coming out soon with its first all-black film entitled La Negrada. So this is a salient topic even today. Recognizing and rejoicing in our African cultural and racial heritage is a huge step forward.
I think it is important to call out the implicit privilege of whiteness that U.S. society places on people. In my personal case, I am quite aware that being a light-skinned person has spared me of some of society’s racial prejudices. It has also placed me in an awkward place of not being identified as Latina enough by my own people, just by appearances. This happens all the time. I am not interested in “passing” as Anglo, but racially I am a white Latina. This is a two-edged sword.
JIN-YA HUANG: Appreciate you inviting me to the conversation, Mark. It’s an honor to chat with you two. I did relate to this Turkish family on multiple levels.
Much like Teresa, I grew up on an island. The Republic of China, officially ROC, Taiwan is a fully self-governing nation, but considered by many a runaway province to China (the People’s Republic of China, PRC). Parties that wish for unification or Taiwan independence, stand on the issues of the people who fled communist China to take refuge in the tiny and populous state. Yet as the 22nd largest economy development in the world, Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, and it remains the largest economy in the world to not be recognized by the U.N. Those sentiments of an “Other” are still alive and well today. Just ask anyone on either side of the strait during the days of missile practice, or watch the latest film release of Crazy Rich Asians, author Kevin Kwan writes about art imitating life—where the lead character Rachel Chu, an American born Chinese, was discriminated against by Chinese natives in Singapore.
That being said, I was uncomfortable with the piece from the start. To be honest, I’m still wrestling with a lot of the emotions it stirred up; the years I first moved from Taipei, Taiwan, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, when I was 13. Perhaps this is why I’ve never returned to attend a high school reunion. To recall these memories along with the cast made me connect with the teenage Ozlem (Lucial Rojas) the most. She shared that awkwardness of not being able to master either side of the language or culture well.
This is also evident as I get to work with refugees in the Vickery Meadow community through the social enterprise I founded called Break Bread, Break Borders. BBBB is catering with a cause. It provides economic empowerment and professional training for women who want to cook, cater, and eventually, own their own restaurant business one day. Sharing food, culture and cooking with women from Afghanistan, Congo, Myanmar, Nepal, Iraq, and Syria, gave me glimpses of how heroically the women, the kids, and their families survived the experiences escaping from war torn countries. One of the many challenges is to turn around and have to relive those trauma over and over, like many in the play. Every day. Just recently over Independence Day, I had shared images of fireworks to wish the cooks a Happy Fourth of July. One of the women confessed to me later, that she ducked and took cover with her children, not knowing what was happening, as no one told her this is what we do here in the states to celebrate freedom. This PTSD response rang true in Dirty Turk, it vividly depicted stories much like these and more, compiled from real-life immigrants, refugees and migrants. These relatable characters became the granule of truth.
This approach urges us to go beyond recognizing these diaspora experiences exist, that this first step is not enough. It also stresses for us to value and see the people who are have these important experiences, when most of the rest of the world do not yet know how to begin that process right now. I feel this serves as a poignant visual guide.
ML: Dirty Turk uses some performers who don't have theater experience, and were immigrants, migrants, or refugees. Does this bring another layer of truth to this production?
TM: I loved this aspect of the production. This is also a very Latin American tradition that comes from the experimental work of Brazilian Augusto Boal and his Theatre of the Oppressed. Also the influences of anthropological theater in the Americas is huge. So, for me as a Latin American and Latinx theater scholar, this is nothing new. In the U.S., Teatro Campesino used real farm workers back in the 1960’s in conjunction with the United Farm Workers. The Odin Teatret in Denmark with Eugenio Barba has been doing this for years. So, no need for trained actors. I find sometimes that too much “technique” gets in the way of the freshness of a performance. One thing for certain though, speaking from someone who has dabbled in directing, actors must have discipline. They must have self-discipline and respect for their craft. This was evident in this piece.
JH: Absolutely agree. The performers being immigrants is the most important life qualification for Dirty Turk. I think we often forget how our personal experience is what makes us experts in our field. This reminds me of a story Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shared. The MacArthur Genius Grant recipient-novelist-writer talks about the dangers of a single story. How we choose to layer multiple sides of truth to unveil it is entirely up to us. There’s something very powerful about owning our personal stories and using it to hone in our voice. In this case, on the one hand, having too much training can stiffen the authenticity of the piece. But speaking of power shifts in our narratives, on the other hand, I wonder in some parts, if we furthered the practice of this theory, that some of the performers could use more of their own words to express the moment (perhaps they already were), instead of memorizing the lines, how they could have regained control on the fluidity and the length of the production.
ML: What are your impressions of the use of puppetry, both with the large-scale carnival-type puppets for the grandparents, and the shadow puppetry mixed with video?
TM. I loved both! The large-scale Anneanne and Dede (Turkish for grandmother and grandfather) perfectly represented the scale of importance that the elder generation plays within the family unit. The shadow puppetry was fantastic! So simple and so effective! You see the employment of all kinds of puppets in Mexican and Argentinean contemporary theater. These are the ones I know and have seen most. They bring storytelling alive in a very simple but not simplistic manner, enough to get the point across but also leaving some leeway for our own imaginations.
JH: I was floored by these giants. It was already impressive how beautiful these look up close (they give the “grand” in grandparents a whole new meaning)—but when I heard about [puppeteer Noel Williams] handmade them, it just made me appreciate the craft that much more. Feride (Catie Chan) and Yuksel (Tori Hartz) wielded the enormous parts with such grace. Every deliberate step and move was a dance. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing this choreography in person.
Ahh, the shadow puppets. First I saw the influences of Kara Walker’s cut-paper silhouettes depicting raw narratives on race, gender, and sexuality. Then I saw traces of Michal Rovner, the Israeli artist who shot photography/videography of abstracted human forms, to portray the Israeli and Lebanon borders. But, most of all, I saw these moving shadow puppets conjure up such fond memories of me visiting my A-gong and A-ma at their farm in the summer, on a rare occasion we got to go to the open theater in town. My grandparents on my mom’s side of the family lived in the deep southern parts of Taiwan, in a tiny village called Dao-Luo, that was rich and deep rooted in cultural history. Outings like these are well depicted in films like To Live, directed by Zhang Yimou (who also made the film Raise the Red Lantern). It’s a wonderful way to share social beliefs, oral traditions and local custom for all ages. I was delighted to see the crew using this method of entertainment of the masses to educate the crowd.
ML: I loved the use of this space. In the tradition of the brand of immersive theater that has the audience travelling from scene to scene, usually in separate locations, I was struck by how they did that in this small warehouse. The audience is free to wander to different areas but can almost always see what's happening in the entire space. Sometimes the audience members feel like they're part of the action, other times they watch from afar. It made me think of a situation that immigrants might be in: Families and others huddled into one small space, never really having privacy but learning to adapt to the situation.
TM. Again, my reference points are both U.S. and Latin American. In the U.S. we tend to revere the proscenium theater as sacrosanct. In Latin America, I have seen what is now called immersive for a decades, both the situational and the type that has the audience move from space to space. Theater happens anywhere! What do they say about necessity being the mother of invention?!
Actually, the beginnings of site-specific performance art in the 1960’s in the U.S. used space in a similar manner. Before the 1990’s crackdown on performance art, many U.S. performance artists —some still around like the inimitable Holly Hughes and Guillermo Gómez-Peña—did and still do site-specific work.
What I loved about this Dirty Turk is the diffusion of actions in multiple spaces and the audience was free to move about and focus on whichever niche caught their attention. At first, it seemed a bit confusing, but then this gave way to wonderment. Some audiences might not enjoy this much freedom. I did. Some decided to settle is seats the entire time. I liked the freedom of looking from various angles.
I found watching the audience quite interesting. Some of the female characters wrote in pieces of paper and then threw them on the ground here and there. I found myself drawn to read them, but I didn’t see too many people picking up the papers and reading them. Maybe as audiences we are too well-trained to sit and be passive. I lived the fact that this piece invited us to move around and also that it offered us instructions on how to do so prior to entering the space.
To me, this diffused space also called out to the diffused and multiple layers of the dramatic action. This wasn’t one of those, stand on the soap box “woe is me, see how badly we are being treated” type of narratives.
I also marveled at the inside/outside permeability. Without giving too much away, this refreshing incorporation of outer space into the dramatic action was very refreshing.
In a nutshell, I found this piece refreshing. I also appreciated that generally speaking, they did not intentionally tug at our heart-strings. I didn’t feel manipulated emotionally, which is wonderful.
JH: That's interesting you saw that reference, Mark. To me, I saw the tight-knit space as more like neurons packed and firing off in various confined yet expansive quarters of the brain. So more of a play on head space portrayal in reality. Having seen Sleep No More, a contemporary interpretation of Macbeth in a warehouse in Chelsea, New York, plus a second visit last month with my ten-year-old son to Meow Wolf, an artist collective/fun house in a revamped bowling alley middle of Santa Fe, New Mexico, I realized having more room is not exactly always an advantage. The jarring experiences of the human condition regardless of cultural differences at Dirty Turk, challenged me and empowered me to navigate through my own sense of discovery. As a domestic violence survivor, I had moments of paralyzing confrontations of watching the father/mother and Ozlem/Luke. I found myself sitting in chairs reading notes, slowly gliding through the room/time, engaging with a deeper meaning to be a survivor. Much like John Ford, there was active use of all doorways, especially the garage door. Seeing the intergenerational young, teenage, and adult Ozlem framed together in slow motion unveiling their fate was cinematic.
What Teresa said about viewer participation is indeed true—not everyone is comfortable touching the art, even when being asked to. This was not a clear division of space for a cultural context of reason, even when mama asked Murat to go on an arranged marriage meeting with another Turkish family, as well as the last office, when water was drenching Anneanne (by women only) and Dede (by men only). Visual artist like Felix Gonzalez Torres was making interactive installations to teach us about activism through mourning of loved ones. These range from posters of deaths incurred by guns, to candy mounds having the same body weight of someone who died of HIV/AIDS. These pieces are not only just for view, but demand for the visitor to take action, and not merely stay passive on the immersion journey.
I read this week about the coloring books given to migrant children at the border who have to represent themselves in the courtrooms. Lawyers in Miami created the coloring books to teach immigrant children about their rights. For many, it is the only legal advice they receive. Color-by-number images explaining there are rules in America, called laws, that have to be followed. Less than one-third of the children have an attorney in immigration court, and nine out of ten children are ordered deported. Children as young as 18 months, unable to speak, are asked to represent themselves. Children who have witnessed their family members murdered are fighting for a chance to live. Dirty Turk is our coloring book to help explain what these intersections look like during crossing. It is a lot to unpack in one night, but its messiness is well worth diving into.
ML: Great observations, both of you. Thanks for the conversation. There is, indeed, a lot of unpack.
I’ll be interested to hear about reactions from audience members who have their own immigrant, migrant, and refugee stories. As a gay man in Texas and the Southern U.S., I have experience with discrimination and the fear of “otherness,” which unfortunately is escalating in our country right now. (Or, rather, those who discriminate are being emboldened to make their hatred public.) That said, I do recognize that as a cisgender white man in America, I benefit from privilege.
I personally don't have an immigrant experience, although I’m descended from immigrants from Ireland and Scotland in the 17th and 18th centuries. Anyone occupying North American land who is not Native American is an immigrant. But my own experience with world travel—particularly my month-long cultural exchange to Bangladesh when I was in my 20s—helped form my world view. Being a writer about, and lover of, theater and the arts has done that, too.
I once heard the leader of a regional theater deliver a speech about the theater being an "empathy gym" for both the practitioner and patron. As such, Artstillery and Dirty Turk offer quite the workout. It’s a piece of theater more people need to see. I can’t wait to see what’s next for this group, and to hear what’s next for the performers and creatives who helped tell this story—and the humans who offered their stories so that it could be told.