When it comes to finding ways to accomplish live (or livestreamed) theater in the time of the coronavirus pandemic, one-person shows have a leg up on bigger productions. With a smaller cast and crew, it’s easier to keep to recommended social distancing guidelines and to capture the stage motions of just one performer on camera.
One example of a local theater recognizing the value of the one-person show is Teatro Audaz, a small, Latinx-centric theater group housed in back of the San Pedro Playhouse building. Teatro Audaz will present livestreamed performances of (Un)Documents, written and performed by Austin poet, playwright, and performer Jesús I. Valles, Thursday through Sunday. The staging is directed by Austin-based director, writer, and performer Rudy Ramirez.
The show, part of a series of solo pieces that Teatro Audaz is in the midst of running, offers an emotionally wrenching and philosophically complex journey through the author’s and their family’s entanglement with the United States immigration system.
Valles, who came undocumented from Mexico to the U.S. with their family at a young age, began writing the poems that would eventually become (Un)documents when, in 2009, their brother was deported. The writing started, Valles said, as a way to work through the trauma of the situation even while stuck inside of it.
Over the next few years, spurred on by a successful poetry contest entry and the encouragement of friends, Valles turned those five poems into 20.
While the first five poems were largely about migration, the author’s family, and their brother’s deportation, the other 15 poems “became these extensions of the other poems – different rooms inside of this story that I was telling, even if I wasn’t aware I was telling it.”
With the dust from last week’s election yet unsettled, it’s worth noting that it was Donald Trump’s election to the presidency in 2016 that served as the catalyst for Valles to create a performance piece based on their poetry.
Valles said they realized then that immigration policy in the U.S. was going to change rapidly. “Not to say I thought it was going to turn into something really new or unprecedented, but I was aware that the policies that had been in place were going to be magnified in terms of their ability to materially impact people’s lives,” they said.
They began to work on a piece that, in its performance, might serve at once as protest, as personal release, and as an empathy-building offering.
The result, which debuted in August 2018 in Austin, has garnered Valles a number of awards, been produced for multiple runs, and taken them as far away as Washington and Maine to perform.
Valles recalls one woman, who came up to them after a performance in Wisconsin and thanked them for an “excellent” show before asking, “are you OK?”
It’s an interesting question, Valles said, and one that comes up frequently when they perform the show. While Valles chuckled that getting asked that question may mean they’ve transmitted the emotional heft of the play well, they said that performing this personal and emotional piece brings “a sense of clarity” rather than fresh suffering.
In (Un)documents, backed by a wall of official (or official-looking) documents, Valles, in verse and bursts, weaves through characters, scenes, time frames, and harrowing traumas, frequently punctuating this turmoil with cold, officious language cribbed directly from a number of actual forms related to the U.S. immigration and naturalization apparatus.
“Immigration law is this very calculated vision that has no biological grounding to it, no reason to it beyond accumulation of wealth and resources and the ability to name some people citizens and some people non-citizens,” Valles said, noting that they identify the distinction as shorthand for person and non-person.
The name and conceit of the play comes from Valles’ meditations upon the “many forms and documents and pieces of paper that have organized my life up to this point” and the “many times I’ve had to answer very specific questions for the U.S. government, without the U.S. government having any answers for any of my questions.”
For everyone in the U.S., Valles said, “lives are structured around forms and bureaucracy and the governance of paper,” but “for undocumented folks and folks who are migrants, there is a sharper relationship there.”
What, then, is the opposite of documentation? Valles suggests (un)documentation could be seen as a gesture towards liberation from the static trap of a governmentally constructed self, towards an authentic conception of self, “ephemeral and breathing.”
As for Ramirez, who has been working with Valles since 2014, they said that (Un)documents excites them because it sets itself apart from immigration stories that “follow an ‘American dream’ narrative, designed to validate the place of the immigrant in the United States.”
Instead, Ramirez said, (Un)documents “questions the idea of citizenship itself: why should an arbitrary border prevent a family from being together? What does it cost to choose citizenship in a country that consistently denies your humanity?”
Considering the potential for the play to have a real impact on its audience, Ramirez offered tempered optimism.
“I don’t know if a play can ever take someone all the way across the political spectrum,” Ramirez said, “but I do think that this is one of those plays that can shift the nature of the conversation around immigration.”