‘Real Stories and Real Lives’: An Interview with the Playwright Jessica Carmona

On Sunday, the Theatre Fellowship of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church presents a staged reading of Elvira: The Immigration Play, by a resident playwright and actress, FAPC member Jessica Carmona.

The play is based on the story of Elvira Arellano, an undocumented Mexican woman in Chicago whose story captured the nation's attention (Jessica's too) in 2006. Arellano had taken sanctuary in a Chicago church as she fought deportation and separation from her then-six-year-old son, Saul, an American citizen.

Jessica Carmona"Her story captured my heart," Jessica says. "Here was this brave, Latina Christian standing up against an unjust law and fighting for the rights of others from a faith-based perspective. Here was someone I could relate to, and support."

After several years in development, Elvira: The Immigration Play made its stage debut in Manhattan in 2014. It was produced by New York Communities for Change, where Jessica teaches English to undocumented immigrants. In 2015, Elvira was part of New York's renowned Fringe Festival, where it was recognized as one of the seven most-promising plays.

In this interview, Jessica talks about how the play speaks to the current political moment and what the FAPC audience can look forward to on Sunday. The performance, which is free of charge, is at 2 pm in Jones Auditorium.

How did Elvira: The Immigration Play come about?

When I first read about Elvira Arellano in 2006, I began to develop an idea for a play based on her life. I collected newspaper articles about her. I began to study the roots and history of immigration. I explored issues of race, prejudice and discrimination. I got involved in the immigrant rights movement and participated in rallies and demonstrations because I felt that as Christians we are called to welcome the foreigner.

All of those issues are in the news even more these days.

The play is even more relevant now because of our newly elected president. In a way, Trump has validated the dehumanization and criminalization of immigrants. He has created an atmosphere of hate and fear in regards to immigrants and refugees. He has labeled them as criminals, rapists and other things. This play is an attempt to re-humanize the issue, to remind us all that these are real people, with real stories and real lives. These aren't just words in a newspaper or statistics. These are real people with hopes and dreams. The great majority come here with hopes to work and to contribute to this country. The play sheds light on the idea that we can find common ground with one another, regardless of where we are from or how we got here. It points to the fact that we if can listen to each other, we can learn from one another and find solutions not based on exclusion or discrimination.

The play imagines an encounter between Elvira and an agent of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE). How has that story line evolved since you first wrote the play?

I have added more back story to the character of John Williams, the immigration officer. I gave him a complete story line of who he is and what is happening in his life right up until the point where Elvira Arellano walks into his life. I have added a special circumstance to the day in question which raises the stakes for John in that room. I have also written more on Elvira's life in Mexico, specifically how the changing economy after NAFTA affected families, and I've written about how the threat of gangs and gang violence permeates large sections of working class Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Elvira ArellanoYou met Elvira Arellano when you were first developing the play. Are you still in touch?

Yes! I am still in touch with Elvira and her church family in Chicago. They were collaborating with us to try to bring the play to their church sometime soon. She remains active in her church and in the immigrant rights movement. She is still with her son, Saul. He is now a high school student and an activist.

Where has the play been performed since the Fringe Festival?

Elvira has been produced at the Rochester Latino Company and has also enjoyed a staged reading at Lehman College in the Bronx. A theater company in Chicago has also expressed interest in bringing the play there.

What can we look forward to from the performance at FAPC?

The staged reading at FAPC is really exciting, because it offers an opportunity for church members and the larger community to engage in a discussion after the performance regarding our own faith and how it informs our view of immigrants and the immigration issue. Questions such as "who would Jesus deport?" And what happens when God's law conflicts with the law of the country? What do we make of the many references to immigrants and foreigners in the Bible and how we should treat them? How do we apply this to the current situation around immigrants and refugees?

We have a great director, Juliana Kleist-Méndez, who is a Deacon here. She and I have similar values and interests when it comes to theater and social justice, so it was a perfect match. Our cast is pretty great as well. We have Jennica Carmona playing the part of Elvira (Jennica and her husband, Joel, are long-time members of the church). We have Joe Loper playing the role of the immigration officer. He was with us for NYC Fringe as well as Lehman College. We also have Cedric Leiba, Corina Rios, Germaine Lebron and Jae Broderick. It's a multi-racial and very talented cast that bring the story to life.

In March Elvira Arellano was granted a reprieve that will allow her to remain the U.S. for another year. Read more about her story here.

Tags: theatre fellowship

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