Voice for the voiceless

Diana Baker // The Torch
The cast of “Now I Am Your Neighbor” finishes an Oct. 23 rehearsal with a bow. The final performance was Nov. 7, but there are plans to take a smaller, mobile version of the play to community organizations in 2018.
Editor’s note: We would like to note that Isabel Smythe Hernandez is the Social Media Manager at The Torch.

In response to sold-out September performances, a group of volunteers and immigration advocates from Lane County are performing two additional staged readings of the play, “Now I Am Your Neighbor.” The play aims to tell true immigration stories and inspire positive action through community discussions and a photography exhibit, all presented by the Community Alliance of Lane County in partnership with Minority Voices Theatre.

The play features real stories of community members who emigrated from seven countries around the world. People were interviewed about their respective immigration journeys. Playwright Nancy Hopps worked with a creative team to weave those stories together into the play, in which characters discuss their histories and the social difficulties of immigrating to the United States.

Several people involved in the project have ties to Lane Community College. Claudia Riumallo, an academic advisor at LCC, was on the creative team and one of the people interviewed.  

“Because there are voices at the table who want to listen. Not that they understand it all, but they want to listen. They have allowed me a voice with the play,” Riumallo said.

Diana Baker // The Torch
Ibrahim Alessa describes a flashback of his character Khalil’s immigration journey out of Syria. Khalil calls back home and finds out his sister and brother in law have been killed by ISIS.

Riumallo’s story of living in Chile under a dictatorship and immigrating to the United States is written into the character Eduardo.

Director Carol Dennis, co-founder of MVT, kept the goals of that organization in mind when casting. The actors have all either immigrated to the United States themselves or have close ties with people who have.

Berri Hsiao, a math instructor, plays the character Ming Ping, who came from China as a young adult. Hsiao identified with Ming Ping’s story because she immigrated from Taiwan in her own young adulthood.

Despite the wide variety of cultures the characters came from, they still managed to find common experiences. Several characters described fleeing violence or oppression. In other cases, leaving home was seen as bittersweet.

“When I left China, it felt like I was severing my umbilical cord,” the character Ming Ping said.

According to project coordinator Therese Picado, this project was inspired by a similar project that took place 20 years ago called, “We Are Neighbors.” It featured a play, a quilt and a photography exhibit and was created to combat anti-immigration legislation.

“Now, after the election of Trump last November, we once again are experiencing a backlash of anti-immigrant sentiment, fanned by his campaign and his policies and attitudes,” Picado said. “It really is unconscionable the atmosphere of hate and suspicion he has created in our country.”

Hsiao was also motivated to participate after witnessing the social impact of the presidential administration changes.

“The policies in place right now don’t directly affect me,” Hsiao said. “But I do think about ‘when is it going to?’”

Included in the playbill of “Now I Am Your Neighbor” was a list of ways to get involved. During the community discussion after the performance, Marion Malcolm of CALC addressed the audience about action.

“We have an ulterior motive. We want to engage you and we want to find ways you can be allies,” Malcolm said.

Ticket proceeds are being put toward efforts that help immigrants and minorities. Money has been raised to cover fees for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program fees, support Centro Latino Americano, CALC, the Islamic Cultural Center for Immigrant Support Service and Citywide MEChA.

“It’s an honor to help facilitate telling stories that reflect the experiences of people in our community, especially those who are particularly vulnerable during these times when fear of ‘the other’ is being fanned,” Dennis said. “Through this unique theatre experience, I hope that our audience will be moved to re-envision what it means to be neighbors in a community and a country that is becoming increasingly more diverse.”

During the end of the play the character Father Tuan says, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

“Now I Am Your Neighbor” has one more performance Nov. 7. The project plans to make a shorter, mobile version of the play for additional performances in schools and other community organizations starting in 2018.