Thursday, June 8, 2023

"The Courtroom: A Reenactment of One Woman's Deportation Proceedings" by Jungle Theater at Hamline University

The Courtroom: A Reenactment of One Woman's Deportation Proceedings
is unlike any theater I've seen before. As the title indicates, it's more a reenactment than a play. All of the text is taken from court transcripts, arranged by Tony nominated theater artist Arian Moayed. If that sounds dry and boring, it isn't. It's surprisingly riveting. Yes, you have to pay attention, because the words weren't constructed to entertain and hold our attention, so it requires a little more work from an audience. There's a lot of legalize, but if you love Law and Order type shows, you'll love this. But the beautiful thing about Jungle Theater's production is that behind all the legal talk and formalities is a true human story. The cast, direction, and staging really make us feel that humanity, and at the end, the play has a truly beautiful message about the best that America, this nation of immigrants, can be. 

The first week or so of performance are being held in a courtroom at Hamline University,* and I'm sorry to say those performances are already sold out. But the show is soon moving back to the Jungle, where it runs through July 2, and I'm sure will be just as riveting, if not quite as immersive. Because when you're sitting in that fully lit courtroom, with actors wearing judges robes, and a bailiff insisting "all rise," it feels like you're watching these proceedings play out in real time. Said proceedings are on the surface relatively simple, but digging deeper, the situation is incredibly complex. Elizabeth Keathley married an American and moved from her native Philippines to live with him in Illinois. Not yet a citizen, she went to apply for a state ID. When she handed the official her Philippines passport and visa, and he asked her a series of questions, including - do you want to register to vote. She innocently said yes, assuming that since he asked her, it was legal. Same thing when her voter registration card arrived in the mail - it must be legal, so she voted. (One wonders why neither she nor her husband knew that only US citizens were allowed to vote, but Civics class was a long time ago for most of us.) Because of this mistake, by law she now faces deportation, which would mean leaving her husband and children. 

is this a real legal proceeding? no, it's theater!
(photo by Lauren B. Photography)
We see Elizabeth's case argued in the Immigration Court and the US Court of Appeals. Actors recite the court transcripts verbatim, including stutters, pauses, overlaps, and misspeaking. Most of them hold cards with the dialogue, presumably because it would be difficult to memorize all of the specific and sometimes awkward speech typical of real spoken words, but it doesn't take anything away from the performance. It actually works with the story, because it seems plausible that lawyers, judges, and witnesses would have notes to help them remember what they're supposed to say. As directed by James Rodriguez (a familiar face on stage), the actors all give very natural, subtle, almost underacted performances. In fact they don't seem to be acting at all, they just become these people. 

Elizabeth (Stephanie Anne Bertumen) examines evidence
on the stand (with Megan Kim and Jay Owen Eisenberg)
(photo by Lauren B. Photography)
The story is presented in a very straightforward manner, yet somehow engenders great empathy. Much of that is thanks to Stephanie Anne Bertumen's beautiful performance as Elizabeth, fully embodying this real life woman, saying her real life words, and giving us a sense of who she was. Playing her husband, Dustin Bronson helps to create that feeling of the humanity of these people whose lives are being ripped apart (as well as providing a bit of humor with his awkward testimony). The strong ensemble also includes Alison Edwards, Vinecia Coleman, Jay Owen Eisenberg, Melanie Wehrmacher, and Megan Kim (an understudy performing the night I saw the performance) as various judges and lawyers, and Charlene Holm as the bailiff you don't ignore. At certain performances (including the one I saw), a local judge plays themself in the final scene, adding yet more reality to the proceedings.

This is one of those plays (even though it's not really a play) that makes you feel the promise of America, the best that America can be. Which is often in conflict with what we see on the news every day. The laws this family encountered, and that many immigrants encounter, are incredibly complex and confusing. They were put in place with good reason, and it's good to have laws, but we also need to see the humanity of the people involved and understand how and why and where they fit within those laws. Not everything is as black and white as the laws may seem when real people are involved.

I highly recommend checking out a performance of The Courtroom: A Reenactment of One Woman's Deportation Proceedings when it returns to Jungle's Uptown home. It's truly illuminating into the world of immigration and deportation, for those of us who have never experienced it. The complex issues surrounding immigration in this country are given a very human face in the story of this one woman, well told by this cast and creative team.

*The Jungle is not the only theater company staging a site-specific performance at Hamline University. This weekend, Walking Shadow Theatre Company opens the Lucas Hnath play Red Speedo at the Hamline pool.