Arts & Culture

Dallas Theater Center’s ‘Deferred Action’ tackles immigration issues

Arturo Soria, Ivan Jasso and Chamblee Ferguson
Arturo Soria, Ivan Jasso and Chamblee Ferguson

Since Kevin Moriarty became the artistic director of Dallas Theater Center nearly a decade ago, the organization has had many world premiere musicals and plays — 2015 saw four in one year, a record for the group.

But the company has spent more time thinking about and developing Deferred Action than any of the others. It opens Friday at the Wyly Theatre.

Deferred Action has been through years of readings and workshops, but the turning point for the show audiences will see came when Moriarty had the idea to lock the playwrights, David Lozano and Lee Trull, in an apartment in the Dallas Arts District for a month — like a writer’s retreat meets TV reality show (except they could go home at night).

“Our tempers flared maybe once a week and that’s when we knew we had something right,” Lozano says. “We would start writing, and we would rewrite and edit each other’s work, and by the end of the month [we’d have] fleshed out characters, and we would pass scenes back and forth, and we would fall in love with these characters.”

Deferred Action is second in a trilogy of immigration plays by Lozano, artistic director of Dallas’ acclaimed Chicano outfit Cara Mía Theatre Co.

It’s a co-production between Cara Mia and the Dallas Theater Center. Co-writer Trull, DTC’s director of new play development, has had his own plays performed at Stage West, Kitchen Dog Theater and elsewhere.

The first play in the trilogy, The Dreamers: A Bloodline, was developed by Cara Mía and premiered in June 2013 at the Latino Cultural Center. That project received a $25,000 grant in 2012, the first year of the TACA Donna Wilhelm Family New Works Fund, dedicated to new works in theater, dance and music by Dallas arts organizations. Deferred Action received a $50,000 grant from the same fund in 2015.

But the idea for working with Cara Mía began when Moriarty, still pretty new to the scene, saw the group’s powerful, company-developed 2009 production Crystal City 1969, inspired by the protests of Mexican-American students in the Texas town of Crystal City nearly 50 years ago. That was the production that revived Cara Mía, a group that was founded in the 1990s and then took a seven-year hiatus before Lozano stepped in.

Moriarty has said that Crystal City was the theatrical highlight of the year for him.

“Kevin saw Crystal City; it was exciting, they built it themselves, and he recognized that [Lozano] has a lot of theatrical vocabulary,” Trull says. “So at that point he decided to build the piece with the two acting companies.”

Lozano had been thinking of an idea for a theatrical trilogy about immigration for years, focusing on the Dreamers, children born outside the States and brought here by their immigrant parents. Then he and his wife, Frida Espinosa-Muller, a longtime Cara Mía company member, saw a documentary at Southern Methodist University called Una Ruta Nada Santa (“The Unholy Route”), which focused on the dangers — rape, violence, murder — of women traveling north, often via train in sweltering box containers, from Central America with their young children.

“We had looked at other works about immigration and all of that seemed obsolete by the time we saw this documentary,” Lozano says.

The result was A Bloodline, which was a harrowing, dark play about four Salvadoran women hoping to make it across the U.S. border for their children. Ten-year-old Javier was one of the children who made it to Texas. The CMTC company spent a year interviewing Dreamers from Latin America and used some of those stories to construct characters and dramatic tension.

In Deferred Action, “Javi” is now a young adult. In the middle of an election year, a viral video thrusts him into the national spotlight and he becomes a pawn for both Republicans and Democrats about the immigration debate.

Directed by Lozano, the production features a mix of Cara Mía and DTC actors, with CMTC regular Ivan Jasso playing Javi.

DTC developed some of the characters, such as Dale, a Tea Party Texas Republican politician, a character developed by Steven Walters (and played by Michael Brusasco, in a recent casting change). The role of a Hispanic Democratic politician was expanded for DTC member Christie Vela, who had worked with Cara Mía in its early days.

Some characters changed or were thrown out (Lozano originally had a character based on Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings), and the idea of how the two major parties treat the issue of immigration became the focus.

“I think we knew what we wanted the play to be about thematically,” Lozano says. “In the beginning, we were writing a play about why our elected officials in Congress aren’t passing immigration reform.

“We looked at the fact that they’re always campaigning and having to appeal to the middle base. Someone who wants to appeal to a moderate base doesn’t want to come across as a strident pro-reform Democrat.”

And then as Lozano and Trull were having their apartment sessions in May and June 2015, the 2016 presidential candidates starting coming forth with their opinions, specifically Donald Trump, whose solution was (and still is) to build a wall that he says Mexico will pay for.

And there were other political news developments, such as the Central American refugee crisis in 2015, Syrian refugees and immigration by Muslims in the wake of the Paris attacks and the San Bernardino, Calif., shooting.

The political discussion on immigration is the focus of Deferred Action, but Lozano and Trull say the play isn’t taking sides with the left or the right.

“Our big question was why are Republicans against comprehensive immigration reform, and why haven’t Democrats passed it?” Trull says. “And we decided it wasn’t in either of their interests for there to be immigration reform.”

It’s also significant that this production represents a collaboration between two Dallas theaters, one a multimillion-dollar mammoth and the other a modestly sized group with a budget of a few hundred thousand dollars, and with different performance styles — DTC is more traditionally text-based and Cara Mía has a strong movement aesthetic. One of Cara Mía’s original company members, Jeffry Farrell, was trained by Hip Pocket Theatre’s Johnny Simons.

“It was a coming together of two different people in terms of cultures in theater, in which our theaters operate and how we produce,” Lozano says. “… I feel very honored that this LORT [League of Resident Theatres] theater wants to raise awareness on this local theater company that creates original, idiosyncratic or unique work, on this company that wants to speak to political and social matters.

“Going through this dramaturgical process, it started to stretch our work in different ways,” he adds. “It started to ask tough dramaturgical questions that we’re not forced to answer.”

Deferred Action