-Written by Shelby Pickelny
I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being. ~Oscar Wilde
In the theater of politics, people are everything. Like live theater, production is made possible by a team of technical engineers, creative designers, directors, and actors, and the pivotal component that constitutes theater – both dramatic and political – is an audience.
Now more than ever, in the dawn of the coming presidential election, and in the midst of the ongoing global pandemic, it is important to think critically and with compassion. To act in the best interest of one person or one group is not what benefits the public on a larger scale. Namely, today’s political, social, and economic climate calls attention to the pertinent issue of immigration reform.
In the modern political stage, immigration is a signature issue for President Trump, and a point of contention between his administration and the American audience. One of the most notable and devastating policies Trump enacted was his zero-tolerance policy for illegal border crossings in 2018 that displaced 2,500 minors from their parents and caregivers. (After enough support from the Republicans, Democrats, and other worldly leaders like Pope Francis, Trump eventually signed a policy that prohibited the separation of families moving forward.) Even still, by 2021 he will have reduced legal immigration by 49% since becoming president. A 2020 Forbes article Reviews Trump’s Immigration Policy: “Reducing legal immigration most harms refugees, employers and Americans who want to live with their spouses, parents or children, but it also affects the country’s future labor force and economic growth: “Average annual labor force growth, a key component of the nation’s economic growth, will be approximately 59% lower as a result of the administration’s immigration policies, if the policies continue,” according to the National Foundation for American Policy.” For a consolidated, non-partisan list of the presidential candidates and their positions on global issues, click here.
Many Americans fail to understand the hardships of being permanently separated from your family. Of course that’s a hard pill to swallow (especially if you have the luxury of benefiting under the current socio-political machine).
This is the benefit of theater: it is the priority of the dramatic arts to communicate one person’s truth to another.
María Irene Fornés, a cuban-American playwright of the 20th century, puts her emigration experience to the United States on the table. Seen throughout her over 30 plays, musicals, and operas, Fornés uses her characters, their energies, and the space that exists around them to offer her audience a vantage point into misunderstood lives that would otherwise go unknown. In her autobiographical play Letters from Cuba, the exchange of letters between a brother who remains in Cuba and his sister in New York establishes an emotional undercurrent that conveys the loneliness of a family divided by borders.
The play is set in both New York and Cuba. Inside of a small apartment, Fran (whom Fornés claims is her alter-ego) and her two roommates Marc and Joseph convey the epitome of NYC living: contemplating life and death and wondering how to make good art inside of an apartment that’s shared between three roommates. On the roof of the apartment is Cuba. The set proposes physical barriers to the characters who long to be reunited, and juxtaposes the differences in freedom, in separation, and in their sense of home.
Production photo from the Chicago premier of Letters from Cuba at the Halcyon Theater in 2010.
Fornés awards us some answers. With the one of two other characters who are in Cuba, Luis tells us why not. Why not just move to America? Why not just visit? The reasons, of course, are complex. “For some it’s harder to leave… separating ourselves from what we know… and [what is] close to our hearts,” he says.
In an interview with the New York Times back in 2000, Fornés reflects on her brother’s choice to stay in Cuba, noting that, “it has to do with attachment… Usually you love a person and you cannot live without them. People have an attachment to their animals, their dogs, there’s a love there. But the love for place is so hard and so beautiful.” On an emotional level, he is content enough to stay in Cuba despite missing the rest of his family. What Fornés leaves to the audience to infer is the unavoidable risk that emigrating imposes under the communist regime of Fidel Castro.
“But the love for place is so hard and so beautiful.”
- María Irene Fornés
To juxtapose the appreciation and contentment Luis has for his home in Cuba, Marc, Fran’s American roommate, suggests that he and Joseph should value life more. They dismiss the possibility of a heaven, a place where they would want to go but deem impossible, and conclude that life is valuable because, “Death is a fact.” Void of any feelings of attachment to the cosmetics of their shoebox apartment, the boys only pine after a romantic love they, too, feel is inaccessible to them. In the space where her characters want what they can’t have, Fornés highlights the emotional desires and realistic shortcomings immigrants and Americans experience together.
Today, in the dawn of the 2020 Presidential election and the continued calamities of the coronavirus pandemic, it is important to bear in mind the truths of American immigrants and the emotional importance that rests in staying connected to your loved ones. By communicating your emotions and holding space for others’s experiences, one can find a piece of theater wherever they go (or in whatever they write).