Westminster High School tackles immigration with 'Just Like Us'

The cast of Westminster High School’s ‘Just Like Us’ is joined by DCPA Education Director Allison Watrous and Theatre Company Artistic Director Kent Thompson (standing back), and Director Andre’ Rodriguez (back right). The play runs Nov. 10-14. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

The student actors at Westminster High School who are about to become the first in the nation to stage Karen Zacarias’ immigration drama Just Like Us will do far more than tell the story of four real Denver high-school seniors – all straight-A students born in Mexico to parents who entered this country illegally.

Many will be telling their own stories. And their families’ stories.

A Kent quote 7Last week, Director Andre’ Rodriguez and his students were visited by DCPA Artistic Director Kent Thompson, who commissioned the stage adaptation of journalist Helen Thorpe’s best-selling book for its 2013 world-premiere, and DCPA Education Director Allison Watrous, who performed as an actor in that staging.

They gathered in a circle for a spirited and wide-ranging conversation about issues raised in the play, how the script evolved through a whopping 17 revisions, and how it was ultimately received in its high-profile DCPA debut. Eventually, these beginning actors started to open up about why this play is so personal to them.

One talked almost matter-of-factly about how her grandfather was deported back to Mexico in September. How he was dropped off in the middle of a field eight hours from where he came from, she said, with no money, I.D., food or water. Another student held back tears telling how his grandfather came to the U.S. illegally with the dream of a college education. Instead, he had to drop out in the sixth grade to work in the fields, and is still doing so to this day, into his late 60s.

“He goes out every day and he’s working his butt off trying to produce to help my grandmother because they are going bankrupt,” the boy said. “I am like, ‘Grandpa, you are getting old. You can’t be doing this. You need to rest.’ He looks worse and worse every day. But he tells me every single day, ‘You have the chance to go to college. You have the chance to do what you want to do. Don’t waste it.’ ”

Taylor Lewis, who is preparing to play Thorpe in Just Like Us, called out the contradiction in the Statue of Liberty’s invitation to “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.”

“We tell people to come here, and that we will take care of you,” she said. “But every time there is an influx of one specific race or religion that needs to flee their country, we are so against it. That’s not American, I think, because being American means accepting all for who they are.”

Thompson pointed out to the students that the modest goal in the Constitution’s preamble is “to make a more perfect union.” That specific wording is important, he said, because it acknowledges that we will never achieve a perfect union. “But we have to always try to make it better,” he said. “That is our obligation.”

One girl remained silent throughout the afternoon talk. Afterward, Rodriguez revealed just how closely this girl’s life mirrors one of the characters in Just Like Us. In the play, the character Yadira doesn’t see her mother for years after she is deported for using another woman’s social security number to find work.

“Yadira’s story is literally her story,” Rodriguez said of his silent student. When asked after why he thought she chose not to share that with the open group herself, he said, “You can understand why the kids who are the most close to this issue would also be the most quiet.”

A path to … high-school enrollment

Westminster 600 3The sign at Westminster High School’s front entrance greets prospective students in both English and Spanish with a message that’s plain in any language: If you don’t have your documents, don’t even bother.

And yet, about 40 percent of the students at Westminster High, located at 68th Avenue and Lowell Boulevard, are undocumented. Four of them, Rodriguez said, are in the cast or crew of Just Like Us.

When the play was first staged at the Denver Center in 2013, it sparked controversy and diatribes, outrage and appreciation, healing and thoughtful dialogue. Talk-show host Tom Tancredo, the son of Italian immigrants who nevertheless worked tirelessly against immigration reform as a U.S. congressman, took to the airwaves assailing the Denver Center’s production, even going so far as to accuse Thorpe of making up the four women upon whom her book is based.

Just Like Us follows how their opportunities for secondary education become divided by their immigration status. The narrative took an unexpected turn in 2005 when undocumented Mexican Raul Gomez-Garcia shot and killed off-duty Denver police Detective Donald Young. The story blew up further when it was learned that Gomez-Garcia had worked in one of then-Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s restaurants, the Cherry Cricket.

“That opened a window for people who were virulently anti-immigration at the time,” Thompson said. “The murder of this policeman caused a great turnaround in policy.” 

A Kent quote 8And Thorpe, of course, was married to the Mayor. Suddenly her place in the story became far more involved than the journalist had ever expected or wanted.

“The whole thing was very exciting because these are characters who come from this community,” Thompson said. “The response from the Latino community was overwhelmingly positive because they were seeing themselves on stage. And frankly you don’t see truthful, authentic Latino people on stage that much.”

But Rodriguez met with some initial resistance from the Adams County School District about staging Just Like Us because the red-hot issue of immigration provokes such a strong response both ways. That he chose to go forward anyway, says Westminster High School teacher and parent Fran Groff-Gonzales, “is why he’s a rock star.”

The high school also houses the offices of the Adams County School District. Rodriguez describes the climate there as “hypersensitive” when it comes to issues such as bilingual education because the rapidly shifting district has for decades served an ideologically conservative base.

As a result, Westminster High School’s graduation rate has dropped to only 60 percent. Rodriguez says he won the school district’s blessing to perform Just Like Us because of the story’s ultimate message that academic achievement will be rewarded.

“We’ve hit the students pretty hard with the message, ‘You have got to graduate and go to college. There are options. Do not lose hope,’ ” said Rodriguez.

During the rehearsal process, two of the four real women from Thorpe’s book visited with the cast and offered advice and encouragement. Rodriguez took the cast and crew on a field trip to Greeley to visit the University of Northern Colorado, where they attended classes and workshops, and visited the César Chávez Cultural Center.

Zacarias, who was herself born in Mexico, could not be happier to see Just Like Us be performed in Westminster. Another student production is in the works at a Dallas high school, she said.

“I am just so proud that Kent and the DCPA took Helen Thorpe’s amazing book and created a vehicle that allows these lives to become palpable and real for these students,” she said.

A Kent quote 10

‘Immigration is messy’

A Kent quote 9Performing in Just Like Us has turned Rodriguez’s cast and crew into questioners. They are questioning their parents, their school, their government and their history.

“This experience has made me start to pay attention to literally everything around me. I have I started asking questions,” said Gabriella Bailey, who is playing Marisela in the play. In May, she won a special achievement for leadership from the Bobby G Awards.

“Before, I would never ask someone if he had his papers. Even my boyfriend is undocumented, so I finally just straight-up asked him, ‘How do you work without papers? I don’t understand.’ ”

Taylor Lewis, the actor playing Thorpe, can trace her roots back to Austria in the 1850s. “What this play has shown me is that immigration is just so messy,” she said. “The only reason I am here today is because my grandfather married my grandmother and got his green card. Despite the color of our skin, we are all human. We all have the same anatomy. We all have the same heart, so we should all have the same rights. Just because I was born on a piece of land that was claimed by an abstract kind of government is kind of stupid. Why does a piece of land change anything?”

One of the most powerful things theatre can do is allow you to look at the world through another person’s eyes, Thompson told the students. And start conversations.

“Theatre can build empathy and tolerance,” he said. “If you are doing a play and you feel their hearts beating and you can feel their heads working, I think it changes the world.”

‘Moving people to care, to understand, to action’

Rodriguez has been nominated as Best Director for all three years of the Bobby G Awards, which celebrate achievements in high-school musical theatre. In May, he won the award for his staging of Rent, a controversial musical that addresses issues like AIDS, social injustice and homophobia. He said it is important for him as a teacher to offer his students the opportunity to perform theatre that is both socially relevant and socially responsible.

“We don’t make progress as a program if we are doing The Music Man here, because that’s just not where my kids are at academically, socially or economically,” he said.

Zacarias believes Just Like Us does exactly what theater should be doing: “It encourages the community to examine difficult issues and create a dialogue between the play and the audience,” she said. “There is no greater success for a play than moving people to care, to understand, to action.”

Watrous, who oversees classes for more than 65,000 students of all ages every year through Denver Center Education, said it is “incredibly important for young actors to have the opportunity to approach material that is sophisticated and challenging and emotional. This play centers on high-school students getting ready to go into college. That is them, and so for them, there is nothing more truthful than that.”

Just Like Us will be the first play almost all of Rodriguez’s students will have performed in. So he is not all that concerned whether it comes off as great theatre.There is a greater goal.

“We are doing this play to communicate the idea to all students that despite all of the obstacles within our society, we can pursue our idea of the American Dream. We can go to school and further our educations,” he said. “Even though our government is saying, ‘You don’t exist within our system,’ this play is telling them, There are options out there, and there is a path for you.’ ”

The cast of Westminster High School’s ‘Just Like Us.’ Photo by John Moore.

Just Like Us: Ticket information:

  • Book by Helen Thorpe, adapted for the stage by Karen Zacarias
  • Presented by CenterStage Theatre Company at Westminster High School
  • 7 p.m. Nov. 10-14
  • 6933 Raleigh St., Westminster, 80030
  • Tickets $6-$10
  • 720-542-5415 or reserve tickets here

Selected previous NewsCenter coverage of Just Like Us:

Playwright Karen Zacarias talks about why “Just Like Us” matters

Video: Helen Thorpe and Karen Zacarías talk about Just Like Us
Denver business community says now is the time for immigration reform
Denver’s Mary Bacon: Proud of a city “that confronts itself every night”
Just Like Us: Theatre that makes the political personal … and entertaining
Meet the cast video series
Flobots, DeVotchKa members release song for immigration reform

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