A thin white line snakes across the floor of Kitchen Dog Theater’s stage before a backdrop of lackluster red wooden pallets, joined by sections of chain-link fence. Then the chanting begins.
“Build the wall!” cast members bellow. ”Build the Wall!”
It was opening weekend for Crossing the Line, a documentary-style play directed by Mara Richards Bim and Tim Johnson, which runs through Aug. 4. The play is divided into two one-hour segments with a 10-minute intermission, and is based on interviews taken in Dallas, through Skype, and at the U.S. border with Mexico.
Crossing the Line is joined by a lobby installation, “In the Shadows,” which provides additional audio as well as photos from the South Texas Human Rights Center and expressive artwork from Dallas youths on the tough topic of immigration.
Those hoping to learn more about the intensely polarizing topic of immigration may have taken away more than they’d expected from the thought-provoking scenes, packed with realistic misery as the fences that initially form a barrier to keep migrants from crossing the line soon become positioned to confine children.
The show’s 10 cast members passionately echo the voices of numerous immigrants, volunteers, human rights workers and others who’ve somehow become ensnared in America’s immigration system.
Delivered passionately, the bleak tale comes off, at times, as one-sided, but is balanced by the chants and peppered with utterances by Ira Mehlman, media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), whose words drone on in dogmatic style.
FAIR was founded by John Tanton in 1979. According to the Los Angeles Times, the organization “has since worked with municipalities and states to craft laws that crack down on illegal immigration.”
Tanton died at age 85 on July 17, the day before Crossing the Line debuted in Dallas. Actor Joshua Bowman, a senior at Booker T. Washington High School for the Visual and Performing Arts, offers a convincing portrayal of Mehlman, who defends Tanton during the show and calls the Southern Poverty Law Center a “discredited organization” after being confronted with the fact that SPLC has deemed FAIR a not-so-fair hate group.
The policy parroting, coupled with a sheer lack of humanity conveyed throughout the performance, is mind- and soul-numbing, especially when the youngsters are seen doubled-up in despair on barren concrete floors behind the enclosed chain link fence panels.
Later, they all kneel together, grasping their rosaries while offering up anxious prayers. The visuals provide plenty of serious and soul-searching material, but then add to that the audio effect of crying babies.
But there’s no laughter. At all.
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Amid the grimness, a splash of color arrives as a bevy of blue umbrellas begin to twirl around like a dance of rushing water. (spoiler alert) But the brightness of the parasols soon fade into dismal hues of horror as an actor swims, his arms reaching out toward the sky as he appears to be desperately drowning among the constantly churning waves.
Portions of the play are fact-laden, and its hotly debated theme is made all the heavier by an anonymous recollection of a fleeing immigrant mother and the tale of terror that accompanies her family along the way. Ervin Staub, a psychology professor, who’s portrayed by another Booker T. Washington senior, Larsen Nichols, says once people are treated inhumanely it makes it easier for them to be treated that way again, perhaps without conscience. Furthermore, bystanders who would not typically treat others inhumanely may then decide to become active participants themselves.
The play’s cast members eventually come together in a futile attempt to describe a system so confusing that it seems to chase its own tail. Then, a dark question arises like some evil phantom from out of the sinister shadows — Was the damage done to humanity, to immigrant families and to children the result of pure negligence or was it intentional? It’s a lot to ponder.
In one scene, Nichols, who also plays Dr. Sallie Plummer from Doctors Without Borders, appears to feel gut-wrenched by it all. Still, Bill Holston, executive director of the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, who’s played by Landon Robinson, a 15-year-old Booker T. Washington junior, says he thinks that, eventually, “right will prevail.”