The Last Dream
The trees were talking about the presidency. On stage, as the lights were being adjusted, children’s voices chattered behind the scenery, “In 2036 I’ll be running for president.” “You have to be 35,” contested a voice hidden behind some silk leaves. “Yeah in 2036,” and then “I’ll be in your cabinet.” “Vote for Kevin!”
It could have been any tech rehearsal; the shouts to the light booth, the buzz of adrenalin, the last-minute reminders about props and sight lines. But as The Last Dream set up for a final DC performance at Imagination Stage, it quickly became apparent there was more at stake than a standing ovation. All these young actors, including those conjuring 2036, were the children of families with Temporary Protected Status, and their future was on the line. This performance was a chance to tell their stories and a desperate plea for their families.
They have limited time to share the message. In the first weeks of 2018 the Trump administration announced an end to Temporary Protected Status for nearly 300,000 people who have made the United States their home. This humanitarian immigration program, often abbreviated TPS, allows immigrants from countries affected by national disasters and armed conflict to legally live and work here until it is safe to return. The sudden policy change set a deadline for the El Salvadorian community: September 9, 2019. On this date the families who have been here, many for fifteen to twenty years, will have to leave or risk deportation.
While the announcement sent fear rippling through these families, the Boston Experimental Theatre Company saw an opportunity to help. It began with simple outreach. “It was very heartbreaking for us to hear about it. We started connecting to the Massachusetts TPS community in the beginning of 2018 with an offer,” the founder and artistic director of the theater company, Vahdat Yeganeh recalled. “Our goal was to help them tell their stories, because they’re going to rallies and they’re meeting politicians and they didn’t have any background, any skills, for how to do that.” As a theater company that had spent the last five years working on cross-cultural dialogs, Yeganeh knew, “this is something we can do.” A one-day workshop was set for the summer.
In July, as the community organizers for TPS gathered with the theater company, it was clear many had brought their children along. “Parents started telling their stories, and then children started telling their stories, while we cried.” For the children the stories are distressing, or as Yeganeh will say time and again, heartbreaking. The children were born in the United States, raised here, and have made their homes here. Many have never even been to El Salvador to visit. They are citizens, and now with TPS ending, their parents face deportation. The homicide rate for people under the age of 19 is the highest in the world in El Salvador, and can be especially dangerous for girls. In effect, the decision means that some 200,000 citizens will be left behind as their parents leave for an uncertain future.
The Boston Experimental Theatre Company was already in rehearsals for another show, but the next steps were clear for Yeganeh, “We have to help them with their campaign and all we can offer is a theater production.” Their company specialized in devised dramas and felt they could apply this same technique to turning the fears, hopes, and stories of these children into a performance. The children themselves could perform. “We wanted to use theater as a bridge to introduce their situation, these families, and this culture to American people. But the other reason for this show is my personal experience… this show and this process is very, very personal to me. I’m a refugee myself.”
Vahdat Yeganeh is from Iran, where he worked as a theater artist and journalist, but times grew dire; the government had made it clear he could not work as a journalist. He knew his life was in jeopardy, and work in the theater was out of the question. Iran became a place full of danger and depression. At 21 years old, he paid a smuggler to help him through the mountains and fled to Turkey. After years in a refugee camp, he was finally granted a Visa and came to the United States in 2002. Soon after, he started Boston Experimental Theatre Company alongside his American colleagues and began exploring devised and Iranian-American Theater.
“The US gave me this opportunity to be alive, pursue my dream, and also work on Iranian-American productions. And that is always, with all the criticisms that I do have politically and culturally and economically about the United States, these are always the profound American values that I hold always in my heart.” Yeganeh continued, “and it was very disturbing to me to realize that these children who are born and raised in the United States do not have the same experiences of America. America is going to destroy their family, put their lives in danger – mentally, physically, psychologically. But also, it’s not helping them pursue their dreams.”
When the eight children who originally decided to take part in the production arrived for the first meeting – Yeganeh told them his story. It wasn’t something he had talked about openly before– after sixteen years in the US only a handful of close friends knew his history. But he wanted to share his experiences before he asked these children to be open about the pain and anxiety and fear they were experiencing.
“Maybe the country was different. They are not from Iran, they are from El Salvador, but the situation was the same thing. It’s a human situation.” Yeganeh ponders only briefly over what could have been if the United States had not accepted him; the fate that could have awaited him in Iran. He left his family at 21, only a few years older than some of the soon-to-be-actors. That deep empathy formed the basis of their trust as they children and the Boston Experimental Theatre Company set out to craft their production.
With this early understanding, they began to share: stories, hopes, fears, dreams, and anxieties. The children brought in mementos and photos and music. The stories began to clarify. It is these stories, these realities, which form the backbone of The Last Dream.
Jacqueline is only 17 but has mustered the composure of someone far older. Perhaps it is practice; she plans on attending college, but already knows that if her parents are deported, she will need to get a full-time job in order to support her three younger sisters. There is a balance and command in her speech; she seems ready to take on the responsibilities that loom even as she longs for something more normal.
In one workshop, Brian confessed he never used to spend time with his father, because playing soccer was way more fun. Now, he spends every moment with his dad, “just helping him around the house, just doing anything to spend time with him.” He wants to remember him when he is gone.
Cristian has made a new home with his aunt and uncle after his father was deported, but they are also TPS recipients and he worries, “my new happiness may be temporary.” He is eleven. Sophie is the youngest actor in the production. She just has questions for the president, but even in a roomful of friends it is hard for her to say out-loud without crying, “Did you ever worry that your parents were going to be sent away when you were just nine? Did you ever have to worry you wouldn’t see your parents again for a long, long time?”
The show opens as a woman’s voice comforts a scared girl, Sophie of the hard questions, with a story that comes alive in a swirl of dancing skirts and thrown flowers. It is not long before the tale grows dark and the bright foliage transforms into a large black monster that continues to haunt the production with a harrowing consistency. This puppet is the personification of their collective nightmares, slowly taking over the stage and dwarfing the actors until only a girl, alone in a party dress, remains looking out at the audience. Her fears grow behind her, but she is looking to us for help.
While the script is credited to Jared Wright and Donya Pooli, it is clear the show belongs to the children. It is not just that community outreach, led by Emily Wright and Evan Feldberg Bannatyne, is credited along with direction, or that the Comité TPS Massachusetts is listed as a collaborator – it is the unshakable realization you are watching something intimate and real. The performers, after all, have no formal acting training and the emotions that well up as they comfort each other in each scene are deeply personal. You are invited to witness their heartbreak, and they do not shy away. They use their real names.
“That was the most emotional part – that made it stronger in a sense but also much harder for us to tolerate it, up to now. We still feel like drowning in this story that we are making.” Yeganeh includes himself, “emotionally, it was extremely overwhelming for us.” Along with the emotions came the worries; would they be able to perform?
The first performances took place in Boston to sold out audiences. “Everyone just felt the tragedy of what these children are going through and theater was the only way we could do that. You can write about it, you can talk about it, and these are all very powerful, but the theater gave the opportunity for the audience members to relive the fear and anxiety of these children and their families and be a part of it.” Yaganeh saw the effect it had on the children; they were discovering their own voices and agency. They were taking part in the fight and were doing all they could to help their parents stay with them. “They feel like they have hundreds more people that heard them… that said they would help them and be with them.”
And there is a hope, however flickering, that their voices will help save their families. In February, the parents and performers and theater company traveled to Washington DC where they performed as part of the National TPS Convention and marched alongside hundreds of people facing a similar situation. Knowing they are fighting for all of them, they took their show to Capitol Hill. Each child’s pleas became all the more resonant with people in the room with the power to make a difference. Sophie broke down in tears, but stood her ground and said her lines with tears streaming down her face. Yeganeh said that even after 16 years in the theater, “the energy they have in the room is something I have never experienced in my life.”
“Because of this process,” he continued, “they are learning to articulate themselves and learning how to speak out. It’s been a real journey for all of us learning more about ourselves and how in relationships with others - it doesn’t matter if they are the same family, the same language, the same country, or even the same political situation, but as human beings - working together how much stronger we get. And when we share our fear and anxiety, how much more we are able to overcome that.”
And now, on this rainy evening outside of DC, the lights were set and the audience seated. The jostling children had disappeared; instead the stage filled with young actors and activists confident in their undertaking. The children of the Temporary Protected Status were ready to make their case and share their deepest fears and private hopes with a room full of strangers. Their future may still be uncertain, but it is clear they have found their voice.