Our Broken Immigration System

Monday, November 14th,  Paul Mason, of the Guardian, wrote that the films that have topped the box office in recent years, superhero films and expensive cartoons, have been escapist and culturally blind. They’ve created an ever widening gap between average American viewers and liberal Hollywood elites.  His solution?  Hollywood must create films featuring modern themes and characters to articulate a response to real issues facing the country.  Hollywood might then have the ability to use their influence to better the country. Instead, Hollywood drags us deeper into the sense of powerlessness that inspired voters to support Trump. It offers no solutions, no expression, no release from despair. Hollywood won’t change. There are too many millions at stake. They will continue to take on the tone and promote the prejudices of the producers who make them.

But to the artists and storytellers accustomed to working for little to no money, toiling away at day jobs and wondering if it’s worth it, I say this: you’re free. Free to be creative visionaries. You have permission to tell stories that illuminate as well as entertain. Prince once said that an artist who creates all the time is not going to have a hit every time.  A lot might not be very good, but the hits will be even better. I propose that we create more than we ever have. If not now, when?

In April my husband and I started a five month creative journey that culminated in our opera, The Place Where You Started.  It premiered Saturday, November 12th at Portland State University. It’s not agenda driven. It’s not about immigration. But the main character, Meredith, meets an undocumented gardener. Their friendship illuminates the complexity and tragedy that drives illegal immigration. My husband and I did not anticipate a Trump presidency, but that our piece opened November 12th felt more timely than we ever imagined. A few of the performers said they felt that they could offer audiences comfort and hope via their characters. The main character can’t save her friend from his fate, but she can do something. That is ultimately the message. That we must do something, even if we don’t know what it is. We must start.

Portland held some of the biggest and most violent protests in the days following the election. As my husband and I walked to rehearsals we heard the sirens. As we sat at dinner we saw paddy wagons careening down streets filled with people. Walking back from dinner one night we were caught in a stampede as protestors fled flash cannons. The last dress rehearsal I came into the bathroom to find a girl weeping. She’d just ridden her bike from the protests. Her friends had been arrested. She’d gotten away.

I’m not exactly sure how activism and art connect, or where they connect. But this past week was the most organic coming together of the two I’ve seen. I’m thrilled to have been a part of that. Let’s do more, together. Let’s keep doing more, of both.

A Cactus Named Tom

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This is a poem I wrote for the opera, The Place Where You Started. It was projected onto the walls during Meredith’s aria. In it she sings of how she has found renewal in the garden, with her friend the gardener Macario, as her guide. This is a sample from her journal. 
The cacti grow slow
Their voices nearly imperceptible
Take this little one
He’s very unassuming
Squat and covered in razor sharp spines
A perfect little dome, no bigger than a fist
Macario says he’ll grow
With care he’ll be as big as a bush
That’s cacti for you
They’re in no rush
They do not worry
They have their plan
Each day they do just enough
Like Tom here
He never tires
demands little
seeks only to live
When he’s happy a pink flower blooms on his head
A gift
Macario says he’s thanking us
Well thank you, Tom
The pleasure is all mine

The Place Where You Started Opera

In May of 2018 The Place Opera received its Los Angeles premier.

Set in present day Los Angeles, the story follows Meredith, a frustrated screenwriter who meets Macario, an undocumented landscaper and gardener. They discover an unlikely kinship as they cultivate a garden together. But this friendship is misunderstood, leading to a rash decision with devastating consequences.

Overtly the narrative is about regret, however, beneath this theme runs a sense of disenfranchisement and isolation. Macario exists on the margins as an undocumented person and Meredith is lost in a life of shallow modernity. She never developed the tools she needed to know herself and now, as she approaches midlife, she’s desperate to find meaning.

She believes it’s a matter of just returning to her original goals. She makes the mistake most Americans make, that we are defined by the form and even substance of our work. She dreams of being a novelist and poet thinking it will make her happy.

Macario, who is from a fictional South American country, teaches her to find meaning in living itself. The garden they work together then becomes a larger metaphor for simply being, as the plants are, in the moment. For his part, initially the garden becomes a place where he can forget the terrible secrets of his past that have kept him running. He lives half a life in America. He feels like a sub-person here even as he is treated as one.

Then, as the story evolves, it is the garden where he rediscovers his whole self again.

In these ways the garden mentors them both.

The two never form a romantic attachment. This is one of the things that makes this story unique. Meredith is a whole person struggling not to find meaning in love, but to find it in herself. Free from the Latin lover stereotype, Macario is not defined by seduction – instead he finds his identity as he remembers his wife and children back home.

The Place Where You Started was given a workshop production in the fall of 2016 by Portland State University Opera Department. Opening on November 12th, 2016, the opera ran for six performances. Portland was home to the most violent protests in America that week, the week of the 2016 Presidential election. In the midst of the chaos the singers felt the work had a kind of renewed meaning. One cast member described it this way, “I just didn’t know what to do, but when I stepped out onto the stage I knew that this was it. This is what I was supposed to do. Tell this story, right now because it means something more than it did before the election.”

In May of 2018, The Place Where You Started premiered professionally in Los Angeles under the visionary stage direction of Kristine McIntyre.