New London's Writer's Block InK tackles immigration in '[Un]Documented'
High school dramatic productions tend to feature relatively tame but wildly popular works from the repertoire. It's still important to be Ernest, in other words.
Then there's the very forward-thinking Writer's Block InK, the New London nonprofit multi-arts outfit that nurtures young people through writing and performance as they explore personal, political and social challenges on the community stage. Their 2019 summer production is an original work called "[Un]Documented," a particularly timely work that includes skits, poetry, dance and music exploring the harsh realities of immigration in America.
As per the InK's method, the show was conceptualized and written over eight weeks by several students from area high schools along with the five Writers Block faculty members, and with collaborative input from the Eugene O'Neill's National Theater Institute in Waterford and the Immigration Advocacy & Support Center in New London.
"All of our content, all of our productions are student-driven and written," says Kolton Harris, artistic director of Writer's Block InK. "So it's a different process than what you might find in a normal high school production. Our team here facilitates the creative process. We're always looking to address pressing issues in society, and so our young folks come in with the intention of making a statement about what's happening and what things are sensitive to them personally and in our community."
Performances of "[Un]Documented" take place Thursday through Saturday in the Clarke Center at New London's Mitchell College.
Cast members, who were selected after an interview/audition process, include Grace Baxter, Micah House, Chenin Lee and Angeljolee Carter (St. Bernard); Dehja Drye (New London Science Magnet); Shyla Fine (Mystic Middle School); Simone Lerner (Fishers Island); Trenton Richardson (Grasso Tech); Gianni Sanchez, Keyty Rodriguez, Ariana Rosado and Juani Wilbur (Waterford High School); David Rosado, Jahira Ross, Jon-Dez Silvan and Joseph Volkerts (Arts at Capitol Theater Performing Arts Magnet School, Willimantic); Brooklyn Young (New London High School); and Amaris Rosado (Clark Lane Middle School).
On a recent Tuesday morning, the cast and staff of "[Un]Documented" gather inside Writer's Block InK headquarters in New London. It's just over a week until showtime, and there's an intoxicating energy in the air — equal parts nerves, excitement and even playful confidence. Instead of barreling directly into rehearsal, the session starts with the group watching a short documentary on drug cartels in Central America and Mexico. It presents a savage reality where one of the consequences is that good citizens, frightened for their lives or that cartels will infiltrate their family structures, flee in desperation — often seeking asylum and safety in the U.S.
Writer's Block InK rehearsals always start with a short discussion or video or something designed to help the research process for the evolving production.
Staff teaching artists Felicia Hurley, CJ Thibeau, Alicia Rosado and Juanita Wilbur follow the video with a discussion, after which the cast takes the stage to work on a satirical "[Un]Documented" scene depicting a game show where would-be citizens are dismissed by a shallow host in a flawed competition.
As this first of two daily sessions gets rolling, Harris ducks into his office to talk about "[Un]Documented" and Writer's Block Ink process. Here are some of his comments, edited for space and clarity:
On choosing the topic of immigration for this summer's production:
Harris: Right now, the idea of immigration is probably the most talked-about issue, along with gun violence and other systemic issues in society. Last summer, we did a very sophisticated production about gun violence and gun control, and this time the students came in and wanted to talk about immigration. We'd hear things like, "This is affecting me and people I know" or "I hear about it this everywhere and it worries me."
On the creative process:
Harris: We have this approach that's kind of formulaic. We always start by asking how much does the group know about the topic they've chosen? How does it affect them personally? Then we go into a research mode, and after that, we start creating. It's a cycle: research, create, research, create. We come in with nothing, and at the end of eight weeks, we'll have a full-scale production. The immigration concept is so extensive that we didn't want to just focus on one aspect, so a bunch of different scenes evolved that address all of the different facets across U.S. history and up to the present.
But there are very real and personal aspects, too. (A student) will ask, "Why would you ever refer to another person in derogatory terms?" Because it happens to them.
So we talk about all these things in discussions and they talk amongst themselves and it gets their creative energies going. It's a progressive way to do work.
On what the audience will see:
Harris: There will be a lot of skits, poetry, vignettes, dance and music. (For example), there are pieces that explore the dangerous journey many immigrants take to get to the U.S. as well as pieces that delve deep into the trauma of young teens in a border detention center where they endure abuse and discrimination.
All together, it's not necessarily a variety show because there's a theme and an opening and an ending that bring it all together. It's an innovative approach the group has come up with, and I think people will be impressed by the words and the movement onstage — as well as the lights and presentation and sets. They've done an amazing job.
On the therapeutic aspect for the cast and faculty:
Harris: The therapeutic aspect is actually at the core of what we do. Everyone who comes in here isn't just externally passionate about the issues; they've been touched deeply on a personal level. But arts and creativity is also at the core of our mission because they ARE therapeutic.
A lot of these young people come from traumatic or troubled situations at home, school or work. A few years ago, we did a show about incarceration, and about 85 percent of our young people in the show have or had had a family member that was incarcerated. We're not trying to replace any of these home or work situations, but we do provide a place where they can come and create.
Plus, in addition to the creative aspect, they also learn to collaborate. This is a constantly evolving experience, and as we go, we ask, "Well, what did you learn about yourself in this? Do you find it hard to work in groups? What did you get out of this and what was or wasn't helpful?" We're constantly taking notes and adjusting the plan because it breaks the hierarchy of "I'm an adult and you're a child." It's a very respectful and as such constructive environment.
On the sad relevance of the El Paso shooting:
Harris: It did change the production a little bit. We're always making changes, but the shootings happened on a Saturday, and all weekend we were getting calls and texts from the cast. (The first day after the tragedy) was a very workshop-heavy day because of the situation. But they come in knowing we're going to adapt and that not even most professional theatrical groups operate this way. And for us, normally, we might have the urge to create something new, but we'll think about it and discuss it. For something like El Paso, and with our timeline, the pressure is on them: You're going to have to create something today and perform with no script. It IS pressure, but at the same time, it can be a magical and helpful experience because we're addressing it and doing something.
If you go
What: Writer's Block InK production of "[Un]Documented"
When: 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday
Where: Clarke Center, Mitchell College, 437 Pequot Ave., New London
How much: $7 pre-order/students and seniors, $10 at the door
For more information: writersblockink.org, (860) 442-5625
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