Most teenagers spend spring break traveling or working to earn spending money. In March, eight North Texas teenagers went to the Texas border with Mexico to conduct interviews about immigration and witness the ongoing humanitarian crisis. The teenagers are now performing the resulting play, "Crossing the Line," through August 4 at Trinity River Arts Center in Dallas.
"Crossing the Line" is co-produced by Cry Havoc Theater Company and Kitchen Dog Theater. Like "Shots Fired," Cry Havoc's 2017 production about the Dallas police shootings, "Crossing the Line" is a documentary-style/verbatim piece that transforms interview responses into monologues. Mara Richards Bim, Cry Havoc Theater Company's founder and artistic director, and Tim Johnson, Kitchen Dog Theater's managing director, co-direct the show.
Bim and Johnson organized the trip to McAllen, Harlingen and Brownsville where the teenagers volunteered at the Catholic Charities Respite Center, observed juvenile immigration court and federal criminal court and crossed the Brownsville & Matamoros International Bridge. They interviewed I.C.E. agents, aid workers, migrants and civil servants.
Out of the myriad of opinions came two consensuses. "No one thinks taking children away from parents and having them sit in detention centers uncared for – that's not a Republican or Democrat issue. It's a humanitarian issue," Bim said.
"Everyone we talked to, no matter what side of the aisle or position they had, agreed the current immigration system is broken," Johnson added.
Bim, Johnson and the teenagers heard the immigrants' stories about their desperate escape from violence in their countries, learned about conditions at detention centers and absorbed how this nation is reacting to flow of people seeking asylum. "Everywhere we went, it felt like it was a community under siege. Everyone was frenetic. Everything seemed to be constantly in intense motion, without stopping and that seemed pervasive," Johnson said.
Seeing the impact of a border policy decided by people thousands of miles away on the border communities was startling. "We watched nuns cry. That was upsetting for me. Seeing the toll it is taking on U.S. citizens who are living in the communities, trying to help was surprising." Bim said. "The I.C.E. agents, our government agents, said, 'The system is breaking. The system can't do what this policy is trying to do. It is broken. We cannot do this.' It is crushing. These are fluid communities that always go back and forth, and I think that's getting lost in the policy."
Johnson recalled watching a juvenile immigration court hearing as a teenager who spoke an indigenous language attempted to understand legal documents. "I watched him try for at least ten minutes to read the documents and I saw him try to mouth words to make sense of it and then at the end of that, he gave up and he was basically doing anything not to cry," Johnson said.
For cast member Rodrigo Fuentes, a rising junior at Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy, the trip became personal when the Texas teenagers met immigrant teenagers being held in a detention center. Fuentes immigrated from El Salvador when he was seven years old. He recognized one of his former classmates from El Salvador among the immigrants. "It's something I will never forget," Fuentes said. "I felt useless in a way because he was there and all I could do was talk to him and even then, I was hesitant. I didn't know what to think at the time. It was more of the feeling of powerlessness, confusion, anger, sadness."
M. Bandy, another cast member who graduated from W.T. White and will attend Bennington College in the fall, discovered she and the immigrants shared interests. "We started talking to them about what they wanted to do. Someone said, 'Oh, I want to go to school and study to be a chef' or someone wanted to study theater. And I said, 'I do theater too,'" Bandy said. "These people are escaping horrible conditions, extreme violence but they still have that hope that they can do something with this life."
Fuentes saw similar aspirations when he met with asylum seekers waiting to cross the Brownsville & Matamoros International Bridge. "They are all hopeful," Fuentes said. "They never show sadness. When you go to them and greet them, they have a gleam in their eyes and talk to you like family. They're hopeful to make something of themselves that they couldn't do in their own country."
Bandy considers what she would do if she was in a leadership position, expressing the power of diplomacy and recognizing the role this nation has historically played in the world. "If we claim to be the best country in the world, I think we should try to promote a better world, not just a better United States," Bandy said.
Bim and Johnson edited 200 hours of interviews into a play. Bim hopes the plays motivates the audience to get involved. "Our intention is to represent people we interviewed truthfully and honestly, but we are not agnostic at this point. At this point, we think what is happening at the border is not a policy choice," Bim said. "It is cruel and unusual punishment being done in the name of every U.S. citizen in this country and it must stop."