Seventeen actors stand in a circle facing the audience. One by one they address the crowd and say a number—”Seven!” “Three!” “Ten!” “Four!”—until the final actor says, “I was eight months old when I was brought to the United States.” The actors, San Jose State students and alumni, bring the words of fellow Spartans to life in Dreamer Project: An Undocuplay, a verbatim theater project created from interviews with SJSU undocumented students by SJSU Film and Theatre Lecturer Kathleen Normington. The performance opened at Hammer Theatre Center on Friday, November 15, and runs through November 24.
“You hear these stories and ‘DACA’ or ‘undocumented’ are not labels anymore,” said Normington. “They are people with stories that we will remember. That’s what I’m hoping.”
Undocumented individuals come to the United States from all over the world in a variety of ways. Some undocumented students qualify for AB540 and AB2000, California legislation that allows undocumented immigrants who have attended elementary, middle or high school in state for at least three years to pay in-state tuition. The 2011 California Dream Act made it possible for undocumented students meeting specific requirements to qualify for state-funded financial aid. Some are eligible for two-year work permits through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a federal immigration policy introduced by President Obama in 2012. Unless undocumented immigrants have been granted DACA, they are not legally authorized to work.
Undocumented immigrants who pursue any of these options must sign an affidavit that discloses their immigration status to the government. Regardless of their status, at San Jose State they are united by a common goal: to pursue an education.
Normington was unaware of the significant challenges faced by her undocumented, DACA and AB540 students until one of them approached her on November 8, 2016—the last presidential election. The student lamented that she wished she could vote, sparking a conversation about the complexity of the immigration system and the competing desires of high-achieving students who sometimes felt limited by their status. Normington began interviewing students with the idea that perhaps there would be a concrete way to educate others about this reality.
By spring 2018, she had assembled a script based on interviews with more than 30 students. Normington assembled a student cast, revised the script and workshopped the play in fall 2018 with a one-night performance at Hammer Theatre. Following the show, the Department of Film and Theatre funded Normington’s full production as part of the 2019-2020 Borderlands: Immigration and Migration in the 21st Century programming, which focuses on blurring boundaries, breaking barriers and building bridges.
“I have been at San Jose State for 20 years and, before the 2016 election, I’d never had a student reveal their immigration status to me,” said Normington. “This has been a journey to learn more so I can better understand our students. I have so much more empathy and understanding, not just for undocumented students, but for all of my students. You don’t know what somebody’s going through until you walk in their shoes. And I want everyone to feel like they have walked in the shoes of one of our students by the end of each performance. It will grip you.”
Throughout the creative process, Normington returned to her interviewees, collaborated with dramaturg Cándido Tirado, consulted with community leaders from the UndocuSpartan Resource Center and with other faculty members, and updated the script to keep up with changes in immigration policy and national rhetoric.
“I hope people see a different side of illegal immigration,” said Jose Garcia-Gomez, ’19 Theatre Arts, who recited his own life story in the play. “I know they will. I hope more undocumented people come out of the shadows. I want people to know that we want basic human rights and nothing more. We are not dangerous. We are not criminals. We are innovators. We are artists. We are students. We are parents. Since all of us are SJSU students, I think this has a positive impact in our community.”
Tickets for Dreamer Project: An Undocuplay are available on the Hammer Theatre Center website: $10 with valid student ID; $20 general admission.