“We couldn’t have predicted how horrific it would be right now.”
Mara Richards Bim, Cry Havoc Theater Company
Dallas — There are images that can’t be unseen: a president’s head exploding as he travels a downtown Dallas street…a jet piercing the high wall of a skyscraper…a girl, naked and terrified, running from American napalm bombings in Vietnam.
Add to those the photograph of a young father from El Salvador and his toddler daughter—Oscar and Valeria—floating face down in reeds at the edge of the Rio Grande River, the child’s small body tucked for safety under his T-shirt.
They died trying to cross the line—between danger and safety, between fear and freedom. And whatever political views we hold as individuals, the images piling up along our southern border are of a despair and desperation that call out to our humanity for action.
Crossing the Line, a co-production of Cry Havoc Theater Company and Kitchen Dog Theater opening July 18 at the Trinity River Arts Center, sets a group of teen actors on the daunting task of bringing the people and issues of the Texas/Mexico border crisis to life. Not just by getting the voices right—the tones, the pitch, even the “age” of the speaker—but, in the words of one actor, letting audiences hear “what they believe—their truth.” (You can view a video document of their journey above.)
For their devised, verbatim play, done in the documentary style Cry Havoc has made its own, the young members of the company—with Cry Havoc’s founder and artistic director Mara Richard Bim, KDT managing director Tim Johnson, and San Antonio-based artist-activist Marisela Barrera (formerly of Cara Mía Theatre in Dallas)—traveled to South Texas in March. They talked with eyewitnesses to conditions in detention centers, sat in on immigration court proceedings, and volunteered at a respite center in McAllen. Bim and Johnson co-direct the production.
The group had a chance to meet with teens from a detention center and interviewed migrants at both ends of the international bridge at Brownsville/Matamoros. They traveled over the bridge into Mexico at one point, to deliver food and water to migrants waiting to cross over the bridge and legally request asylum in the U.S. And after it all, they came back to Dallas with 200-plus hours of recorded interviews—talks with migrant families, ICE officials, judges, charity workers, lawyers, human rights activists…and teenagers like them.
It was a life-altering experience.
“How can you see this and then go back?” asks teen actor Leonela Arguello, 16. “I wanted to stay with them, to hold on. I don’t know what will happen to you, how can I just leave? The feeling was almost like you were betraying them, even though you weren’t.” The Cry Havoc actors passed out water, served food, and sorted clothing at a center that takes in migrants released to await their court hearing.
“The first thing the kids get, while their parents are filling out paperwork,” says actor Mary Bandy, 18, is “a bowl of soup and some water. The kids would come in completely blank-faced, trying not to think of anything or show anything.” Sometimes, she remembers, “their faces would brighten up” for a minute…until she had to walk away.
“I don’t think I will ever take things for granted again, even taking a shower—all the daily essentials I have that all these people are denied,” adds actor Landon Robinson, 15. “I made a friend at the border, and he’s still there. It’s definitely shaken things up, put things in perspective for me in a new way. I feel a responsibility.”
All three teens echo the word responsibility—a sense that they are honor-bound to portray these characters and tell their stories.
“All the people we talked to were speaking from what they believe—their truth,” says Bandy (who goes by her last name). “In normal playwriting, every word is specifically constructed by the playwright….You could write a play about immigration just based on what you’ve read or learned. But this isn’t fiction. These are real people talking about real events that are impacting lives.”
“I do believe in the power of art, of theater in particular, to make a difference,” says Arguello. “There is such excitement, a feeling that this play needs to happen. Because we have seen these things, but the world hasn’t.”
“What shocked me was hearing definitely from many different people that child separations never stopped [after all the protests and pronouncements of 2018], that there never was a plan to put the kids back with their families. Knowing that it wasn’t negligence, but intentional—that felt devastating to me.”
— Tim Johnson, Kitchen Dog Theater
Cry Havoc has tackled challenging and divisive topics before—in shows including Shots Fired (about the killing of Dallas police officers by a sniper), last season’s Babel (about gun violence in America; the teens even attended the National Rifle Association convention in Dallas), and the current Sex Ed, which closes this weekend —but what’s happening in South Texas to children and families from Central America has a particular level of sheer awfulness and urgency.
“Typically when we’ve done these things, Cry Havoc has remained agnostic,” says Bim. “We didn’t take a side on the gun issues in Babel; with Shots Fired, we tried to present a whole picture, all points of view. But this go-round, immigration policies and politics aren’t what this show is going to debate. It’s about what’s happening to these kids—and I hope people are angry when they walk out of here. I hope they want to do something.”
“Almost everyone on all sides agrees our immigration system is a mess,” says Johnson. “It’s been Band-Aided again and again, and needs an overhaul.” But, he adds, that conversation feels “almost disconnected” from what we really need to be thinking and talking about—the people at the border and in our immigration system.
The first act of Crossing the Line is called “Politics.” The second is called “People”—and the structure is intentional.
“We pull in a lot of information [at first],” Johnson says. There is a history of Central America’s Northern Triangle [El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras] and our country’s involvement in the region. There’s a look at the current chaos—the cities of these countries have some of the world’s highest murder rates—and at the origins of asylum laws that rose from the U.S. response (or non-response) to the Holocaust of World War II.
“The spine of the play is our experience of the trip and the people we encountered,” says Johnson. As a team, he adds, both the artistic staff and the actors “began with thinking mainly about the politics, but ended, after witnessing all we did, by feeling that [politics] seemed almost immaterial. My hope is that in mirroring our experience an audience will have a similar journey, feeling in the end that this is all about what’s happening to people.” To families in particular, he adds, who now make up about 80% of migrants coming to the border—a big change from several years ago, when most migrants were “single men coming north for jobs.”
Bim acknowledges the “stress overload” that came with the project. Before the border trip, the company brought in psychologists to prepare the teen actors for the experience—but the adults were equally vulnerable. “While I was at the border,” she notes, “my heart rate for three nights in a row sat at 160; I couldn’t get it to come down. We had an idea we’d see some sad and terrible things, but it was so much more.”
“When we asked people for their stories, we heard truly horrific things,” says Johnson. “A mother described her son being burned alive. Everyone had stories about someone in their family, or a neighbor. There was an inevitability to it: if you stayed, you’d become part of the gang, or would be raped and [become] the gang’s girl—or face terrible violence.” According to The Guardian newspaper, 43 of the 50 most homicidal urban centers on the planet are located in Latin America and the Caribbean.
One of the teen actors had the shock of seeing a boy he knew among a group of teens from a detention center—someone he’d known in El Salvador as a child, before his own family emigrated to the U.S. “He didn’t tell us until afterward,” says Johnson. “He was quite angry, understandably, and didn’t talk to him because he didn’t want to make it harder for the other boy. And I think he didn’t know how to deal with his own emotions.”
“We debrief as we go, talk in a group and get a sense of what is resonating with them.”
Mara Richards Bim
Collecting verbatim material for Crossing the Line followed a process Cry Havoc has fine-tuned over its five years of existence. On their travels, the teens fan out with audio recorders to talk with a wide variety of people and points-of-view. Some interviews are arranged; others are chance encounters. It’s quite a list, including migrants waiting at the border bridge, a former head of ICE under Obama, a federal judge, ACLU lawyers, a historian and author at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., and a doctor who’s been inside some of the detention facilities in South Texas. Artist-activist Marisela Barrera, who was brought up in the Rio Grande Valley, was a great help along the way.
Back in Dallas, Bim and Johnson took on the job of turning the huge mass of interview transcripts and other raw materials into a play.
“We spent endless hours reading, categorizing, culling, narrowing down,” laughs Bim. “I think the script started at 107 pages. Now it’s 57 pages long—and I enjoyed working with Tim, who got me to sit down, think, and do a lot of cutting at the beginning, before we brought the kids a script to start working on.”
Cry Havoc and Kitchen Dog have co-presented before, in 2017’s The Great American Sideshow, but Crossing the Line is the first show they’ve developed “from the ground up” together. And the two companies are a great match, Bim and Johnson agree.
“We try, pretty successfully I think, to stay with our mission of dealing with issues of equity and justice and morality,” says Johnson. “And that’s certainly true with most everything Cry Havoc does.” Bim agrees “there’s an aesthetic synergy” between them. “There are other theater companies in town that also explore issues of social justice, but their aesthetic is so different that [a co-production] wouldn’t have made sense.”
The teen actors say they make good use of the audio tapes to study the characters they’ll portray—voice, style, etc. Johnson notes that “mining” exercises all along the way—a kind of theatrical memory game—also help capture fresh, vivid details of the experience. “What are the sounds you remember? What single [spoken] line do you remember that’s haunting you?”
Bim has called Cry Havoc a theatre company that “happens to have teen actors.” She’s blunt about the dearth of good material available for this age group “that is not condescending, or a bad after-school special."
It’s one of many reasons the company is devising their own plays and tackling issues that genuinely are important to teens. “I don’t know any Dreamers,” says Johnson. “But most of the teens in our cast know a lot of them. These are very real, very immediate concerns for this age range.”
“And it’s so rewarding in the end to have honored the stories of people whose voices aren’t heard very often,” says Bim. “I think the teens know that if not for them, these stories aren’t going to get out there. And while the stories are sad, they feel a moral duty. This is something they can do. They’re not old enough to vote, most of them, but one thing they can do is get onstage and tell these stories.”
“This is my fifth show with Cry Havoc,” Bandy tells us. “And with each one I’ve become angrier—but also more persistent” about trying to wake people up to issues of social justice—especially her fellow teens, who she says “close themselves off” from learning about these topics. “This kind of theater isn’t meant to say ‘agree with me or get out’—but you’re starting a conversation, just by coming to see and listen to the play.”
Arguello thinks she’s found her future. “My dream always has been to be a director and playwright—and to make plays like this. This trip has changed me, has made me feel it and want it so much more. We need to get on this, to talk about important things, political or humanitarian.”
And we’ll let Landon have the last word.
“I’d say come to the show with an open mind,” he says. “Talk to people who normally you might not approach. Be open to the conversation. Maybe there is a middle ground you can find in talking—to make this whole climate less radical, less divided, and to come to some solutions.
“You might as well make the world a better place, right?”