I recently attended a world premiere in Denver of the play Just Like Us, written by Helen Thorpe, the wife of the current Governor of Colorado. It is based on Thorpe's 400-page book about 4 young women in Denver as they finish high school and go on to college. Sounds simple, but two of them are American citizens, and two are illegal immigrants. Thorpe's book is far from being fiction - she followed these four from 2004 to 2010, changing only names to protect the innocent. These are real lives, real challenges faced by huge numbers of school children, some of whose parents came here without "papers."
The word "papers" seems so benign, but it is not. As one of the illegals screams in angst to her American friend "You have your papers. You don't think the way we do!" One of the girls sees her Mother being forced to return to Mexico to avoid jail time, and both of the "illegal" girls are in constant anxiety of being stopped by the police in case their immigration status is discovered.
Some real names are used in the play, including Tom Tancredo, who plans to challenge the current governor for his job in the next Colorado election. Tancredo has achieved fame across America for his stance against illegal immigration, and he gets lots of stage time here to expound his views. This is very ably and forcefully done by actor Richard Azurdia. He is just one of 15 actors who bring Thorpe's book to life, thanks to playwright Karen Zacarias who has won several prestigious awards including 2010's Steinberg Citation winner for best new play and 2006's Francesca Primus Award for an emerging woman playwright.
Thorpe herself is cast in the play by actress Mary Bacon as a participant-observer, in part because that's the style of journalism she employed but also because her husband John Hickenlooper (may or Denver during the period of the play) figured in the play. He was found to have employed an illegal worker who was involved in a murder.
Of the four girls, Bacon says they "are stubborn weeds determined to flower." It is only late in the play that she realises there "are no internal borders" in the minds of the girls without papers. The borders of countries exist, but they are external to the people she is studying. The journey that leads her to this revelation is to a large extent what the play is all about - the journey of a white American woman who finally understands what the girls really are.
I asked a couple leaving the play for their opinion. As regular theatre-goers to the Denver Center for 30 years their opinion carries some weight. The husband thought "it was quite preachy. It seemed more like a political rally than a play." His wife was also ambivalent, unsure is she liked it or not. The same opinion was expressed by others I talked to after the performance. I noticed several people did not return after the intermission, and there was a sense it was too long. A judicioius cut of 15 minutes would have made it more focused.
In any case, immigration reform is a hot-button issue in Washington now, so the timing of the play is opportune.
Just Like Us is being performed through Nov. 3, 2013. Visit the website for more information on tickets: denvercenter.org
Photo of the Center by Clifford Cunningham shows a huge banner ad on the right of the building for the play.