Benjamin Benne explores immigration in his play ‘#nowall’ at the O'Neill
Benjamin Benne’s play “#nowall” — about immigration in America — could not be more timely.
And yet it’s not a brand-new piece. Benne began working on it back in the spring 2016.
He recalls, “At that time, the election hadn’t even happened, but just the xenophobic rhetoric of Trump’s campaign and the beginning of alternative facts, with the concept of the anchor babies, already just the fear around immigrants who are supposedly not supposed to be able to be in the country and the pathways they had available to become citizens was enough for me to already begin writing. And, yeah, (the situation) just feels like it’s escalated and gotten worse, sadly.”
Indeed, he began to dig deeper into this work in 2017.
“Especially after the election, it felt necessary that I pursue this play and really make it a priority,” he says.
His mother was an immigrant from Guatemala, so, he says, as he was crafting the storyline for the play, it wasn’t difficult for him to consider: What if the conditions were different for her, and she hadn’t come into this country under the opportunities for amnesty in the 1980s, which allowed her to find a path to citizenship? What if she had been completely undocumented and was living in the U.S. with a child who was born here and thus was a citizen?
Benne’s “#nowall” focuses on a mother and daughter. The mother is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who came into America 18 years ago, knowing she was pregnant and wanting to give her child a better life. Now, that daughter — a citizen because she was born on U.S. soil — is 17 and is scheduled to take her SATs the next day.
“The piece really follows the barriers that are in place for individuals who are undocumented, with children who are legal citizens. It sort of stemmed from research about the myth of the anchor baby, as the Right was calling it, and how this idea of parents who have a child who is a U.S. citizen having a pathway to citizenship is totally a lie and how there are catch-22s within the system for individuals who are in that situation,” he says. “The play also explores systemic inequality for the children who are U.S. citizens as first generation living in this country.”
“#nowall” is one of eight plays chosen for this year’s National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford. Those works competed with more than 1,400 other submissions for inclusion in the conference.
This is the first time that Benne — who grew up in Los Angeles County and has been living in Minneapolis, where he has been on fellowship at the Playwrights’ Center — has been to the O’Neill.
“The thing about the National Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill is it is sort of the ultimate pipe dream of every playwright. It’s the most competitive new play program in the country, so it’s something that, even as a very young playwright, I knew existed and I knew I was almost obligated to apply to it every single year,” he says.
“The more I learned about the industry and the longer that I’ve been in it, the more I’ve realized the O’Neill is something most playwrights never get (into) in their lifetime or in their career. It was just this pipe dream, so I was absolutely thrilled and a little shocked when I found out from Wendy (C. Goldberg, the conference’s artistic director) that I had been invited to be a part of it this year.”
Not only did Benne see his play selected for the National Playwrights Conference, but he also was accepted into the Yale School of Drama, where he starts pursuing an MFA in playwriting this fall.
“It feels like, this year, a lot of dreams that I’ve had for myself that I’ve really been taking seriously, particularly over the last two, three years, are suddenly coming to fruition," says Benne, who is 30. "They are things I’ve always hoped and dreamed for but never actually expected. So I’m really excited to have these opportunities ahead of me, for sure."
Benne was always interested in storytelling. As a child, he recalls, storytime was a big deal for him. He loved when his parents would take him to the library on Tuesdays for storytime.
“I just found that the more and more that happened, the more and more I fancied myself a storyteller and liked to retell the stories I had heard,” he says.
He had an “incredible” creative writing teacher in fourth and fifth grades who asked the students to write their own stories, starting with personal narratives and eventually moving into fiction. So Benne wrote his first short book with illustrations in fifth grade; with that piece, he placed in a county-wide competition.
“So I think I always had a little bit of a writer’s bug, and once I caught the theater bug, it felt like it was only natural that the two collided,” he says.
He started doing theater in high school because it was unlike anything he had tried before. He came into it as an actor, but the more he was in that collaborative setting, the more he realized he wanted to direct; he liked to develop how a piece would be presented in terms of its atmosphere and style. When he was an undergraduate student at Cal State Fullerton in Orange County, his first playwriting teacher said she thought he was truly a writer and that was a path he should pursue.”
“I listened to her and have never looked back,” he says.
“#nowall” is a little different from Benne’s usually work, which is sprawling, with lots of locations and characters and elements of magic. This work, on the other hand, is very streamlined and mostly realistic, with just hints of magic.
Benne has worked on “#nowall” at the Playwrights’ Center, where he has been a fellow, and at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, where Benne did a workshop of the piece.
Not many audiences, though, have seen the play, and Benne is very curious how theatergoers at the O’Neill will respond.
“#nowall,” 7:15 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, 305 Great Neck Road, Waterford; $30; (860) 443-1238, www.theoneill.org.
The National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford starts its public staged readings tonight with a new work by Beth Henley, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her play “Crimes of the Heart” in 1981. And it continues through the end of the month, culminating in Sarah Tuft’s memorably titled “Marvel-ous Monica; In Which Monica Lewinsky Is a Superhero Hell-Bent On Revenge.”
In between are readings of an array of intriguing plays listed below.
Tickets are $30. Call (860) 443-1238 or visit www.theoneill.org. The O’Neill is located at 305 Great Neck Road, Waterford.
“Lightning” by Beth Henley, 8:15 p.m. Thursday
“#nowall” by Benjamin Benne, 7:15 p.m. Friday and Saturday
“Lockdown” by Cori Thomas, 8:15 p.m. July 11 and 12
“Ruth” by Enid Graham, 7:15 p.m. July 13 and 14
“Endlings” by Celine Song, 8:15 p.m. July 18 and 19
“The Forest” by Lia Romeo, 7:15 p.m. July 20 and 3:15 p.m. July 21
“Slave Play” by Jeremy O. Harris, 8:15 p.m. July 25 and 26
“Marvel-ous Monica; In Which Monica Lewinsky Is a Superhero Hell-Bent On Revenge” by Sarah Tuft, 7:15 p.m. July 27 and 28