By Pamela Chan
April 8, 2016
Caption : Art can have the benefit of helping otherwise heavy stories hit home for viewers who don’t feel immediately connected to the situation at hand, as with a new CalArts theater production which hopes to soften the vitriol directed at immigrant children who travel hundreds of miles on their own to reach the United States.     

The healing effects of art have been known to man for centuries. Pablo Picasso once said that “art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” French painter Georges Braque hailed art as “a wound turned into light.” And even Marcel Proust noted that it is only through art—and art alone—that “we can emerge from ourselves and know what another person sees” (emphasis added).

As one of the West Coast’s premier art, performance art, design, and film colleges, the California Institute of the Arts, better known as CalArts, knows this to be true. And with the help of faculty member Marissa Chibas, CalArts is vowing to help audiences all around the world “see” the plight of immigrant children seeking refuge in the United States with a new production, titled Shelter.

Written by Chibas, who said she “feels a connection to these young people no doubt,” the first-generation daughter of Cuban refugees carefully pieced together the entire script by “constructing collages of different personal stories” that were told to her through talks with a group of seven unaccompanied minors, various experts on the immigration crisis, as well as over two years of improvisation and youth empowerment workshops working to provide a clear glimpse into the difficult experiences of unaccompanied minors fleeing Central America’s ongoing violence.

“There’s a whole labyrinth that the kids have to go to,” says Chibas, who, along with acclaimed Mexico City-based director Martin Acosta, is portraying “the [immigration] crisis though the lens of theater—which due to its physical and poetic nature inspires conversation in ways that traditional news can’t.”

Indeed, the illuminating the lived experiences of the crisis is a primary objective. “Shelter is based on extensive interviews that tell the stories of undocumented youth and those of their teachers, lawyers and caseworkers—giving voice to the multiple perspectives of those involved. Their stories convey the human consequences, not simply the facts,” an official CalArts press release states.

Having just come off of a sneak-peak presentation at the Los Angeles headquarters of the Central American refugee support center, Carecen, the minimalist production (which runs at about 75 minutes) contains of an outdoor and indoor version, as well as a bilingual component. The March 18 preview proudly featured the latter “way simpler version,” as Chibas puts it, “with seven actors, seven chairs, and seven boxes that we can take anywhere. We plan to tour the piece – we want to be able to take it to audiences and communities who have been affected by the crisis,” she says.

The outdoor version, which is set to debut on April 8, 2016 at Lincoln Park in East Los Angeles, will include a 20-foot shipping container that the actors will “move in, around, and on top of” to evoke the experiences of children riding on La Bestia, a deadly and infamous northbound train that young migrants jump on to quicken their journeys to the U.S.

“It’s a really treacherous train where many fall off or lose limbs or their lives. There are constant raids on La Bestia by either police or cartels, so kidnappings are very common. It’s very very dangerous,” Chibas explains. “I hope that for the young people who have been through this trauma, that seeing this work is healing to them, and that they feel the power of sharing their story and how heroic their journey has been. I hope they realize how it’ll help others who have had to make this harrowing journey feel represented and be represented. That’s very important to me.”

Actress and CalArts alum Cynthia Callejas feels the same way. “I hope for the kids that it gives them validation—seeing yourself reflected, it almost materializes you. It proves that you exist. It’s like walking through the world and never seeing your refection and what you look like… Then finally seeing that you’re there, you’re real,” she says.

“People that are marginalized don’t ever really get to see their stories being told or see people who look like them or sound like them have their experiences—and then elevate them literally onto a stage. It gives importance to your story, that what you went through is important enough for a whole group of people to spend hours and hours writing about it, memorizing it, working on the movements. I hope that this is exciting for them, that it gives them confidence and validation,” continues Callejas.

Besides a large section of the play devoted to the treacherous cargo train ride, Shelter will also shed light on the different stories of young people attempting to navigate the complex U.S. deportation and shelter systems—that is “if they even make it far enough to a shelter in the first place,” laments Chibas.

A highly staged and choreographed “military-style” bit will provide a peek in the process that the kids are forced to go through with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), as well as myriad paperwork, red tape, and screenings upon arrival. Another portion of the play is dedicated to life within a local shelter, as three girls gather around to share their stories and to find “that sisterhood to get through their fears,” says Chibas.

“It’s [been] quite the experience to tap into the personalities of these children,” says Audrey Oimos, another actress in the play. She portrays two characters within the production, a 14-year-old girl from Mexico named Jasmin, and Mariana from Honduras who both have very different journeys coming into the United States.

“During each rehearsal I find a new connection from their words. I’m very inspired with this work and am thankful to be a part of this project. I myself am Mexican-American and I have always wanted to use my art to express political and cultural issues to those who are not able to voice theirs,” Oimos says. “Not only do we voice their struggle, we capture the light of the children. Such as, sharing myths and stories that they’ve heard back home and being able to laugh in a difficult situation.”

Along with Callejas, who herself is a native Colombian who came to the U.S. at age three, the two young artists are honored to have been chosen to be part of such an important art-as-conversation-starter to, as Oimos notes, “heal and to educate, to open people’s understanding and create a dialogue that breeds knowledge into a deeper vision of what immigration costs.”

“I’m not a doctor or a lawyer… I’m an actor…This is what I’ve chosen to do,” says Callejas. “This is the way in which I can use my gift to help the world.”

It’s no secret that the issue of thousands of unaccompanied minors showing up at the southern U.S. border has been a highly contested topic this past year, with politicians claiming that lax immigration policies under the Obama administration were to blame, and others worrying that the desperate children could bring about crime and disease, working viciously to send them back to their home countries. Needless to say, the entire nation has become lost within a fervor of anti-immigration laws, border restrictions, and visceral debates that have not only shrouded the individual hardships of all too many immigrant children, but also taken away what’s most important: their sense of existence.

Shelter amplifies the voices of many unaccompanied children. It opens up meaningful conversations on the subject by helping our country move towards a way of “breaking out of this endless violence so that immigration policies can somehow be changed for the better,” Chibas hopes.

“Our play is certainly not going to change everything, but there are certainly conversations happening all over our country right now and I’m particularly interested in not the talks about wall-building, but the ones that have to do with building actual bridges, which are able to help those that are suffering on a monumental scale. I think it’s our responsibility and art is a great way to do that,” Chibas concludes.

Callejas adds: “Nobody walks thousands of miles to risk murder, amputation, rape, and death just because. You only do it if what you’re fleeing is worse than what you might be going up against in the journey. I hope people come to understand that. A lot of people are saying that these kids are ‘breaking the law.’ Well, the law doesn’t mean a lot when you’re starving, or when your family members are being murdered, you know? There needs to be change.”

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