Dallas — Alex Alpharaoh’s mother told him to keep his head down. His father told him to shine like the sun. Complicated advice for a kid growing up in Los Angeles without the “papers” he needed to be the person his heart knew he was: an American, through and through.
He got here as soon as he could, after all—as a three-month-old carried through the desert by a Guatemalan mother who was almost a child herself.
This week, writer and actor Alpharaoh (AL-FAIR-OH) brings his acclaimed solo show WET: A DACAmented Journey to Dallas in a new production spearheaded by Cara Mía Theatre Company. The Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle recognized the play as Best Solo Performance of the past year, and Cara Mía’s executive artistic director David Lozano was so impressed with the piece that he worked with Alpharaoh and other partners to create a 10-city national tour. (Co-producers are Southern Methodist University Meadows School of the Arts’ Ignite/Arts Dallas and the Latino Center for Leadership Development.) Dallas is the first stop in a run that will take the show on to Austin, Chicago, Hartford (CT), Denton and Boston.
WET, as Alpharaoh told TheaterJones in a phone interview, isn’t a bundle of “statistics.” It’s the passionately told story of his life as an undocumented person living in the United States, both before and after he was accepted into the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program five years ago. Before DACA, as the only undocumented member of his family, he grew up hiding in plain sight, knowing he was different from other people. Acting, from a very young age, was the thing that held him together. But age 18, Alpharaoh says, the reality of his non-status came “crashing” onto him: the closed doors, the red tape, the limits to his life. When it came, DACA seemed like a miracle—suddenly, he could buy a car, open a bank account, sign a lease, take a job.
And then, the 45th president of the United States was elected.
TheaterJones: Here you are, on a tour with your one-man show, which won awards and made a big impact on hearts and minds in Los Angeles. Politicians came to see it. People cried. How are you feeling about taking things national?
Alex Alpharaoh: Oh, it’s great. I love Dallas—the people here have been really nice. I thought I was walking into enemy territory, in a way, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Everyone has been very kind and genuine, so I’ve been having a good time.
So, it doesn’t make you nervous to be in a border state with all Texas’ hot-button immigration issues?
You know, Los Angeles isn’t that far from the border either. Right now, my status in the country is OK, and it’s not like I’m openly walking the streets yelling, “Look at me!”
But it’s always with you, the worry and uncertainty of being “undocumented”?
Yes, that’s true. Everything that’s happening on the political spectrum affects me indirectly or directly—especially when it comes to travel. It is very frightening at times. I’d just finished performing the show early in September of 2017, and then on Sept. 5, Jeff Sessions announced the rescinding of the [DACA] program. I was in the theater space with my artistic director there, who asked me ‘Are you okay?’—and I just broke down.
It’s very frustrating. I am an American. If I had been born six months later, when my mother was in the United States, there wouldn’t have been a problem. I’m the only person in my family who is undocumented. Brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, aunts, uncles, my mother—everybody is a citizen by birth or naturalization. I’m the only one who fell in the cracks.
That heightened level of fear and stress about your status—and what could happen if the DACA program disappeared—shaped what you created onstage, and what you continue to create.
Most definitely. In many ways, this play is a living document. I’m really excited about the tour and premiering it here in Dallas, because audiences here and moving forward will see a major revision of the play that was done in Los Angeles.
It’s the same story, the same play, but I’ve been fortunate to have Cara Mía and Ignite/Arts Dallas bring together an extraordinary team, along with my director Brisa Muñoz, to support WET with lights, sound and all the elements that will elevate the story to a new level. As an artist, for me, it’s always a goal to challenge myself and stretch the fabric of my artistic knowledge and capabilities.
How early in your life were you aware that you were in a tough spot?
As early as maybe seven or eight years old, because I was always very bright and perceptive. I could read and write when I was three, and hold full conversations when I was really little, sitting on people’s laps. But it wasn’t until I was a teenager, after my father passed when I was 15 years old, that I really began to feel the impact of what it meant to not ‘have papers.’ And then when I hit 18 and became a legal adult, that’s when all the red tape and all the barriers came crashing onto my life. I couldn’t get a job, a driver’s license, couldn’t get anything in my name. All of these things started happening then.
This is such a critical, personal issue for you—but most Americans aren’t affected by it. And a significant number of people don’t want to hear what you have to say. If you had 10 minutes with them to make the case for how much ‘Dreamers’ like you have to give the country, what would you say to them, to put a human face on this issue?
The first thing I would ask is that they suspend their beliefs and ideologies just for a moment. I don’t think this play is effective for someone who walks in with a closed mind. My hope is that by coming, they at least are showing they have the spark of curiosity—and that’s a good starting point. And if I do a good job as a writer and performer, and my team does a good job, we can, as you say, ‘put a human face’ on a very polarizing issue.
But the play is not a soapbox, and I don’t sit and give you statistics. I share a slice of my life, of what it’s like for me being an American in this country.
I was told in school that I needed to think and to act like an American, to feel like an American. I was told I must deny the history and culture of the people I came from, and be proficient in the English language. As a child, I took that to heart.
And so I would say to the anti-immigrant people that I am an American. I am a product of the system. My people, my ancestors came on the Mayflower. My people established the Constitution. I understand the history of this country, because it’s my history too. I understand the sentiment, the anger, the frustration of why people would vote the way they vote, or feel they’ve been cheated for a generation. I understand people’s anger that the middle class is shrinking, because I’ve seen that in my life too.
But it isn’t because of people like myself. We aren’t taking people’s jobs. We aren’t a burden to this society. Everything that I have, everything that I am, I’ve had to work hard and earn it. And in fact, even for me to be in a place where I am having this conversation with you, I have had to be exceptional, stellar. Everything I’ve done as an artist to compete, that’s been the case.
When the play opened in Los Angeles, you said that people who’d known you for years were shocked and surprised to find out all you’d been through.
I was living in the shadows, and I didn’t share my burden with people—so doing this show is like my coming-out party! People I’d known for 15 or 20 years came up with tears in their eyes and say, ‘I never knew.’ I couldn’t risk telling. I think my best friend was the only one who knew outside of my family—and so when the show opened, my friends began to put the pieces of the puzzle together: ‘Oh, that’s why you didn’t have a car or a bank account. And that’s why you couldn’t work, because you didn’t have a Social Security number. I always thought you were just lazy!’ [Laughs.]
I am a child of two worlds. My mother always told me to be quiet and keep my head down, because she understood that being noticed would put me at risk. My father, on the other hand, was always encouraging me to be the best I could be, to shine as bright as I could—to be the best at what I was doing. That [conflict] comes into play in the show, and there is a pivotal event that compels me to move forward.
I can’t imagine how it must have felt to be accepted into the DACA program—to have the hope of one day leading a ‘normal’ life here—and then to have the current administration try to pull it all away from you and the 800,000 other Dreamers.
Yes, because again, if I’m sent away to a place I’ve never lived, simply because I was there for what, a month or two months of my life…it really doesn’t matter to what part of the world I go. It doesn’t matter if I end up in Guatemala, where my family came from, or Croatia. I will still be an American. The people there will hear me talk, see me walk, learn my perspective and say: he feels, talks, thinks like an American. Because being an American is just as much a mind state as it is a physical place you were born in.
That was how the country was set up, right?
Exactly. I am a product of the way the American system was created—and in many ways, in some heartbreaking ways, it’s a very successful system. I am completely assimilated into American culture. One thing people ask me a lot in Q&As, especially in high schools, is ‘How were you raised?’ And I say, I was raised just like you, I grew up watching Saturday-morning cartoons and eating horribly sugar-frosted cereal. I love pop culture, I wear Nike Air Jordans and listen to hip-hop. My parents were always working, so I rode bikes with my friends outside and we got into mischief.
Did your parents find what they were looking for in coming to this country? Were all the hardships and risk worth it to them?
I would say yes. My father died when I was a teenager, and my mother is still with us, bless her heart. She became an American citizen about 15 years ago. But my father came to this country from a part of Guatemala that was torn by extreme violence and poverty. Even before I was born, he knew he didn’t want his children to grow up there. And the only way he knew to give us a better life was to come to the United States. My father was 19 when he came here, and my mother was a 15-year-old unaccompanied minor—with a baby—when she came.
For immigrant families, it’s always a lot about these dreams for the children. And you have a teenage daughter. What are your dreams for her—or her own dreams?
Yes, she does dream for herself! My job as a parent is to create a fertile environment for her to be and do whatever she wants. I always tell my little girl, and I raised her with this idea, that you can be anything if you follow these two rules: Don’t hurt yourself, and don’t hurt others. If you can love thyself and love thy brother, you’re good.
It’s funny, because when you’re a kid, that’s easy. As you get older, it becomes more complicated. But I hope I have given her a good moral compass, and she’s an outgoing, outspoken kid—an artist and a feminist.
And also, she knows she is the daughter of immigrants and a woman of color in a world where that can be two strikes against you—but she still gets to experience the privilege of being an American.
WET: A DACAmented Journey is scheduled for the following tour stops:
- Sept. 21-30: Theatre Too! (inside Theatre Three, Dallas, TX)
- Oct. 4-7: Teatro Vivo (Austin, TX)
- Oct. 11-13: Destinos Latino Theatre Festival (Chicago, IL)
- Oct. 18-20: University of St. Joseph (West Hartford, CT)
- Oct. 30-Nov. 4: University of North Texas (Denton, TX)
- Nov. 8-25: ArtsEmerson (Boston, MA)