Presented by ArtsEmerson
Produced by Cara Mía Theatre & Ignite/Arts Dallas
Written and Performed by Alex Alpharaoh
Directed by Brisa Areli Muñoz
Review by Diana Lu
(Boston, MA) Alex Alpharaoh’s one-man show is a captivating fusion of poetry and play. Alpharaoh transforms from character to character, suspense to comic relief with shape-shifter ease, never missing a stanza as he leads the audience through his onstage persona, Anner’s, ceaseless real-life struggles as an undocumented person in the US. Even traveling to see his dying grandfather for the first and last time is a life-threatening ordeal. It’s not life-or-death, but life as you know it-or-an undiscovered country certainly feels like comparable stakes.
In my opinion, poetry, solo act, and personal narrative are the hardest things to pull off effectively. The most terrifying, most dangerous thing a person can do artistically, is to stand onstage alone and talk about herself. As a stand-up comedian, I get a taste of that, but my truths are hidden behind punchlines. I never have to expose my vulnerabilities bare and aching.
For me, the show was very relatable. Neither of my parents were able to see their parents before they passed. I still remember when my dad got the letter from my aunt telling him that their father passed away. That’s the first and still only time I’ve ever seen him cry. We were awaiting our greencard approvals, and frankly, just didn’t have the money to go back.
I also understand well the anxiety that Alpharaoh carries with him all the time. It’s a tenseness that comes from a lifetime of fear that at any moment, your entire existence could be upended for no reason at all. When I was young, my parents were terrified that any misstep on their part could result in someone call CPS splitting up our family forever, as had happened to one of our neighbors. And we were the lucky few who migrated legally.
I say these things not to gain sympathy, but to underscore how much more tremendous the existential burden of being undocumented must be, and to emphasize how true to life and emotionally resonant Alpharaoh’s production really is.
The script had a distinct sense of rawness and authenticity. Usually, every minor prop, every seemingly off-the-cuff remark carries symbolic and emotional significance that somehow ties in with core elements of the story. In this narrative, there were a lot of loose ends and details that were mentioned once and never brought back that made this production mirror real life that much more.
The play actually reminded me of an action movie or suspense thriller more than anything else. I think this is because all the conflict is external, with rising stakes and a hero desperately trying to beat the clock. There was no internal transformation of the main character, which usually makes or breaks a story for me. In this case, however, there was so much riveting, touching, profound content that I was emotionally engaged and on the edge of my seat the whole time, even though I was pretty sure the story would end well.
Finally, I loved the infusion of Spanish into the verse Alpharaoh wrote to close the show. Spanish is just a more lyrical language than English, and I think the symbolism of that was wonderful as well: Alpharaoh weaving his Guatemalan identity into the story of his American one, makes the whole richer and more meaningful than the sum of its parts.
I genuinely enjoyed this show and had the good fortunate of speaking with its creator afterward. The transcript is below:
DL – How did you decide to create the show and what has the production process been like so far?
AA – There’s not any major reason other than, I thought I was going to get stuck in Guatemala. I thought I wasn’t going to come back home and I was really scared. I didn’t want to end up somewhere where I’d only spent 2 months of my life, then all of a sudden after 30+ years came back to, a place where I didn’t understand the customs, traditions, politics, or even the language. I speak very, very broken Spanish in comparison to Guatemalan nationals.
The night before we had to fly back out to LA, I was really scared. I was crying in my mom’s old room, where we were staying, and I just prayed to God. I said, “please God if I can just make it home, if I make it home—you have blessed me with these gifts, my acting, my writing—I promise I will share this story. And I kept my promise.
However, I never thought the impact was going to be what it’s becoming. There’s a lot of great solo work out there, and a lot of great plays being written about all kind of issues including immigration.
The first weekend this opened, back in august 2017 in my home theater, EST LA, we had 13 people in the audience and 7 of them were my family members. I did not think this show was going do well at all. I’m still a relatively unknown talent. I don’t think that’s really the case back home anymore, I got like local celebrity status now, haha. But that’s not why we do the work. We do the work because we need to do the work, because there’s an inherent need to fulfill and to satisfy.
The silver lining with this horrific situation with DACA and TPS and the lack of immigration overhaul is that I did the show around the time Jeff Sessions got rid of the program, and it sparked a lot of interest. I was very fortunate that the critics in LA were very kind to me. They were very supportive of the work.
I think it was a lot of preparedness-meets-opportunity that brought me to where I am today. I have been blessed with an incredible production team and a really intelligent, kind director that help me shape the story on stage. These are all the components that make this show the success it’s become.
DL – That’s great, congratulations.
AA – Thanks!
DL- So does that mean you’re still undocumented?
AA – Oh yeah!
What does that mean for your future? Can you get an artists’ visa? An extraordinary abilities visa?
AA – Unfortunately, having an O1 visa, what they call the “genius visa”, would be very similar to DACA. They’re two-year work visas, so you can work in the country, but you have to renew them every two years, and you can’t necessarily travel freely either.
DACA recipients are now just waiting for work permits, waiting for policy change, for the new House of Representatives to usher in the new era of reform. It’s very difficult. The frustration you see my characters play in, it’s coming from a real place. At the end of the day what you’re seeing onstage is a stylized version of myself, but it’s a version of myself nonetheless.
DL – Totally. What personally resonated with me is the specificity of the characters you portray and how genuine all those emotions are. I could really relate to that feeling of constant anxiety about just existing, and how difficult that must feel day to day.
AA – Yeah it’s exhausting, it’s really exhausting. I’ve been doing some version of this play for almost two years now. And I’ve been on national tour for the last 11 weeks, in 16 cities, countless universities, places I never thought I was ever going to visit.
DL – Have you ever had audiences who are really opposed to DACA? Have you ever changed someone’s mind?
AA – Yes, actually. I have.
DL – Wow.
AA – There are these rare instances I’m made aware of. But I mean, you don’t do the work specifically with the idea of changing people’s minds. You would hope that people will walk away with a different mentality after they experience the show, but at the end of the day, impact is a very personal thing.
I can only do my job as an artist. I can only tell the story as honestly and as authentically as I can and hope that people walk away with a different perspective. The thing is, most of the time you’re not going to know what a person’s perspective is, or what their thought process is because you’re not going to see them again.
Unless we’re having a talkback or post discussion, I’m not going to see any of these people. They come in by the hundreds, every weekend. So I don’t know what the effect is. Like you’re telling me you saw the show this weekend. If we weren’t talking, I would be completely oblivious to that.
DL – Haha, that’s true.
AA – And you’re telling me that you were impacted and that you resonated with a lot of the things you saw in the show, and I’m grateful for that. My hope is that that can be elicited from individuals, but I can’t expect that. I can’t craft my story like that. There’s people who do that, there’s people who can, but maybe I’m not that good of a writer.
DL – I think you are.
AA – Well thank you.
DL – Is there anything else you’re working on that you’d like to share?
AA – I’m the founder and creator of SP!T: Spoken Word Theater, or SP!T About It. We’re an LA-based ensemble that uses the city of LA as the backdrop to tell stories about social issues, everything from BLM to No Person is Undocumented to LGBT issues to #metoo to race relations in the inner city and gentrification. I’m the founder and writer, and I write these stories in meter, as an homage to Shakespeare. I write them all in iambic pentameter, in a combination of prose and meter.
We engage with people in LA to bring performance art to underserved communities. There’s a lot of underserved communities there, and we’re teaching people who’ve never acted or learned poetry or have done any kind of performance work or even stand up in front of a bunch of strangers and speak for 5 minutes. That can be terrifying for people, but it’s a vital skill to have.
SP!T About It puts on workshops to teach people to write and perform their experiences to heal from trauma. There’s a lot of trauma in the inner city that people don’t like to talk about. There’s a lot of PTSD, especially in the immigrant community, especially marginalized communities, people of color, anyone who calls the US their home but have a home in another country that they miss, things like that. That’s what I’m engaged in back home.
DL – That’s great. I agree, it’s so scary to be vulnerable artistically, but I think it helps people regain confidence that they’ve lost from being marginalized or traumatized. It’s therapeutic, and the art they create can have the opportunity to affect change the way yours has.
AA – Definitely. Thank you.
DL – Is there any else you want to share about yourself or your work?
AA – I’m grateful to the city of Boston and to ArtsEmerson for bringing me out here.
I’m living my childhood dreams of being an entertainer! I never knew how hard the road was going to be. My acting mentor used to say, “look, if you’re not willing to commit the rest of your life to this, and acknowledge that the work you do in this class may be the best it’s ever going to be for you, get out, cuz this is a tough road.” I thought he was lying, but I got on the path and was like, “aw man! This shit is rough!”
I have a lot of friends that are very well-known actors and artists that have been doing it for way longer than I have. Some of them haven’t. They got really lucky or got really good representation, or that one show launched their careers. That’s great, and I’m happy for them, but one of my good friends that constantly works and you see her on a lot of TV always tells me “Alex, overnight success takes 10-12 years.”
DL – Exactly. Another thing that people don’t like to talk about is, a lot of people who make it, they’re financially supported by their families or spouses during those 10-12 years.
AA – YES!
DL – Compounded with other inequalities and stressors, such as being undocumented, or being a person of color, makes it even harder. It makes your success that much more incredible, and your story that much more impactful.
AA – Thank you. It is difficult. I don’t like to think of it as lost time, but I have lost a lot of time, because for 30 years I wasn’t able to do anything as an artist. How am I going to be an actor if I don’t have a social security number and I can’t join the unions or travel outside of the state of CA? There were so many roadblocks and so much red tape that I had to deal with that was REAL, because I wasn’t able to have a legal presence in this country.
I’m very grateful that DACA came, but it’s not a solution, it’s not a path to legalization. People think that because I have DACA now that I’m ok, that everything is fine. No, everything is not fine, there are over 14 million people that are not fine. This is not ok, we need a path to citizenship, we need a path to legalization, we need to be considered human beings and be allowed to be in the country.
I believe we should have some form of comprehensive, controlled immigration policies, but what we have now needs to be rehauled. Treating people of color primarily as rapists and murderers, and criminals, sending the military to the border so they can point guns at little babies and guns, that’s not ok. That’s not who America is.
DL – Absolutely. Well thank you so much for your time.
Thank you for watching the show!