William Shakespeare has no place here. Nor do Gilbert and Sullivan.
“Crossing the Line,” a co-production from Cry Havoc Theater Company and Kitchen Dog Theater in Dallas, doesn’t need an imaginary world to make a point—it has enough material with the real one. Taking place at the Texas-Mexico border, the play examines the immigration policy debate that exploded after accounts of intolerable conditions were reported. It shows what it really means when the world is the stage and the people in it mere players.
There is no playwright here. Real people’s words collected from interviews conducted over the year construct the entire play, which ran from July 18 to Aug. 4. Over 200 hours of interviews are pared down to a two-hour show. The sentences we hear might be from the former U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement director or from a mother who is living in a holding location near the border. We get a documentary in real time of what informed sides have to say about the issue.
We attend the play Aug. 4. It’s the last day of production, the day after a gunman from Allen opened fire at a Walmart in El Paso and two hot-button political topics collided into tragedy. Cry Havoc Theater Company has now covered both topics over two years in its productions—it discussed the gun control debate in its 2018 play “Babel.”
At the auditorium entrance, wire fences line the walls, hanging photographs from the South Texas Human Rights Center and art about immigration by Dallas teenagers. Headphones rest on a table offering recordings of the people interviewed for the play we’re about to see.
An amphitheater formation of chairs surrounds a low stage. We sit in the center, near the back. The rest of the audience files in; a good number are white senior citizens. Younger audience members sit with friends, and a young Latina sits next to me. She’s greeted by a couple who sit next to her. Soon chairs have to be brought in, filling the stairs, because every available seat has been taken.
Long planks and barbed wire make a wall along the back of the stage. Three panels of barbed wire on wheels rest in the center back. This image, enhanced by slightly unsettling music, sets a somber tone. The lights go out.
Teenagers materialize from all parts of the theater, one sitting on the steps about five feet from us, another in a spotlight center stage. More are shadows in the background, beyond the “wall,” clinging to the fence, looking out at us. The play opens with an emphatic, yet strained interview with a Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) representative advocating that we forgo emotions when facing the border crisis and instead be practical. Behind him, two of the teenagers beyond the wall lean into an embrace. Over the speaker’s head, a monitor reads “politics.”
Every side spells out its perspective. One source explains the difficulty of accepting large numbers from across the border while another recounts the history of immigration policy, starting in the World War II era. A Holocaust survivor says he can’t understand why people are leaving their countries. An asylum seeker describes one morning, walking into his own farm to find that a cartel had littered it with bodies and put heads on his own fence posts.
A screen above the stage identifies each speaker. Their words haven’t been streamlined for clarity but are brutally presented with broken trains of thought, sudden rabbit trails, stutters, swallowed pauses.
The first act aims to inform the audience. Across the room, I see all eyes invested in what the teenagers onstage are reciting. One woman in the front row sits forward in her chair, her chin resting on a closed hand as she takes in the revolving door of perspectives.
This engagement is intimate, a kind that the audience would not get from a news article or televised debate. There is no “off” switch for live theater. The only spot in the room deserving attention is the stage—everything else is blacked out. The voices are carefully ordered to make a woven understanding of a complex topic, and there is no space for interjections.
The words settle into the back of our heads. Inside this dark room, a fuller picture of the immigration topic begins to develop.
The facts continue to come out: How the Bush administration wanted to take a more lenient stand on illegal immigration. How family separations began under the Obama administration. How the tides turned to the extreme when the Trump administration introduced its zero-tolerance policy.
“The border is simpler the farther you are from it,” an anonymous national reporter explains. The audience collectively gives a knowing laugh.
But the laughter doesn’t shake the gravity of the topic. The audience isn’t allowed to forget that as these experts and analysts are speaking, people are living behind barbed wire. The play’s choreography includes slow-motion hugs, half-speed border wall protests, collective deep breaths, and even a wave of blue umbrellas symbolizing an ocean, an asylum seeker struggling to safety in its midst. The factual inspiration doesn’t hinder a colorful artistic spirit representing what is black and white for so many people.
Late in the play, beyond the wall, a few teenagers gather at one girl’s feet as she raises a torch. In front of her, a FAIR representative says that while the Statue of Liberty is an important symbol, the adage at its base—your tired, your poor—is a poem written by a teenage girl and has no bearing on lawful practice.
The second act reveals more emotion. The teenaged cast, led by co-directors Mara Richards Bim and Tim Johnson, visited the border in March as a group to get a firsthand experience and to record interviews with sources living through the border’s realities every day.Their own words comprise a good amount of the second act. There are additional descriptions: a clinical psychologist and a trauma therapist talk about the effect isolation can have on children in the most critical years of development. A former Methodist pastor who rode along on a migrant caravan recounts the horrors people were escaping at the hands of violent cartels. But the teenagers themselves also describe what they saw and heard based on their experiences volunteering at the Catholic Charities respite center in the area and from the day they visited one of the holding locations for children.
One of the cast members, who lived in El Salvador before moving to the United States as a child, recalls seeing a familiar face—he had reunited with a childhood friend in the holding location.
The students also visited juvenile and criminal court hearings for illegal immigration cases. They describe fast-paced proceedings without much regard to a language barrier to multiple dialects. They recount tales of 17-year-old children struggling to represent themselves, with little to no idea of what the judge was saying. The three people next to me begin to cry.
Richards Bim told me beforehand that while the company’s previous plays were unbiased, “Across the Line” does take an urgent tone.
“Some of the things we saw were so heinous that we have for the first time sort of come out saying something needs to change,” she said.
Through this representation, the picture of the border situation continues to develop into a vivid image. The words “humanitarian crisis” arise multiple times from different voices. They come alongside descriptions of facilities that are not made for long-term incarceration. Lawyers recount the very real prospect that some parents may never see their children again because adequate records aren’t being made of who belongs to whom.
The play concludes with the gravest final bow I’ve ever seen in a theater production.
The sun is still up when we leave. We enter the big, bright world again on the tail end of an emotional experience.
I’m still grappling with the words I heard. This play did what no news report or televised debate could do—it forced me to absorb the debate’s entire form.
It’s easy to exit a webpage after a few moments—the information we have access to is overwhelming and inspires a short attention span. One astonished Slate reporter recently told readers they probably wouldn’t finish his article about why people don’t finish reading online articles. There’s even a special term for when people get bored and leave a webpage, or “bounce.”
But you can’t bounce a live performance.
“Crossing the Line” forced me to hear the argument in its many forms and feel it to a deeper level than what I get from reading descriptions on a page.
The play ends on a troubling note, but the photo is not fully developed. The debate is not resolved, nor is the crisis. The audience is also the playwright in this story. We get to decide what happens next.
Note: This story has been updated with corrected information. In the last paragraph, the story incorrectly referred to the play as “Across the Line.” We apologize for the error.