by Rosalie Murphy

Denied Admission is a new play about asylum seekers at the U.S. border. The performances at The Center on Friday, March 8 and Saturday, March 9 are staged readings, after which the audience can share feedback with the artists.

The artists plan to mount a full-length, more final version of the play in July.

“I hope people don’t walk in expecting it to be this fully developed, perfect thing. It’s not. I’m calling it a work in progress for a reason. But I’m excited for people to contribute whatever they have to offer,” says Denied Admission creator Katie Beck.

Last year, a friend connected Katie to a lawyer working pro bono for the International Institute of Akron. That lawyer shared anonymized transcripts of credible fear interviews. In these interviews, people seeking asylum in the U.S. seek to demonstrate to U.S. law enforcement that they have a credible fear of danger if they return to their home countries.

Two of those transcripts provide the foundation for the Denied Admission script.

“There’s a balance of where I want to be raising awareness, presenting facts and things that are happening, but also trying to show these stories,” Katie says.

The Devil Strip spoke with Katie about the process of developing the Denied Admission. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What is Denied Admission about?

It’s based on credible fear interviews that asylum seekers have faced. This version of the script is specifically two different people — one is a young man from Somalia and one is a young woman from Honduras. So it’s exploring those interviews and… the dichotomy of this very sterile law enforcement process, of trying to decide if someone is truly fearing for their lives, versus what’s happened in their past, their stories, which are very emotional and traumatic in some cases.

What’s the value in sharing work with a public audience before it’s finalized?

The thing that’s always been a limit for me in community-based work, or creating plays from story circles, interviews and documents, has been not having enough time to write and revise. So for this one, since the nature of the material is so sensitive, I want to have a few rounds of seeing how people react, because I’m trying to create the highest-quality production we can.

One of my values as a theatre artist is bringing in new audience members, people who don’t typically participate in arts events or in “theatre” with a capital T. I think that this will draw… a lot of advocates, so I value their opinions, the fact that they’re experts and have been in rooms with these people and have seen the whole process. I’m interested in community feedback on emotional responses… in hearing this character tell this story. Is that triggering? Is that helpful for you to know?

Especially as a playwright — and I always work with real texts or real interviews — it’s so helpful to know how other people respond to certain things, because otherwise I’m in the silo of my own brain. And these are especially intense stories, so I want to make sure we’re being respectful and engaging the audience.

In the alternative theatre community… I would say the majority of us believe that no script or performance is ever complete, especially if it’s an original or a new work, because every performance presents new discoveries, because of different audience members, or reactions.

Why did you choose these two interviews as source material?

They’re just two totally different stories. I think the gentleman from Somalia is interesting, because I don’t know how many people are aware that there are African asylum seekers coming through. And then the Honduran woman demonstrates a story of, she’s coming from a place of domestic violence from her brother-in-law… showing that a lot of times, it may not be the government or gang violence, but other factors that force people to leave their homes.

What does ‘Denied Admission’ mean to you, so far?

I’ve always been someone that has to create in response to the world around me. I think that’s what it means to create socially conscious theatre, theatre for social change, being aware of what’s happening in the world. I am not a lawyer, I am not bilingual, I can’t necessarily directly affect these people, but what I can do is create a performance or create an event to raise awareness, to try to raise money, to increase the conversation around this topic with practicing empathy through art.

I’m nervous, just because it is so hot-button right now, but this is why I want it to be really co-created with the community, so it’s as respectful and impactful as possible.

What can viewers expect from this staged reading?  

This first round, I have a random crew of volunteer actors reading. One of the elements of this play is that there’s going to be a projector screen where we’ll do some images, I want to put up some facts about asylum law, and then eventually the projector screen will also serve as a silhouette screen, where actors step in front and portray some of the stories through movement. This round is more about just playing with those elements.

We also have to raise some money for mounting the production. I want the actors to be compensated, because it is going to be a heavy show, and then also just make it the best quality production so that when we have it fully mounted, a lot of those ticket proceeds will go to an organization working directly with asylum seekers.

The reading will only be 40 minutes. There will be a 30-minute talk-back. It’s just a space for watching and developing a new work.

See Denied Admission on Friday, March 8 and Saturday, March 9 at 7:30 pm.
Performances presented by Gum-Dip Theatre at The Center, 118 West Market Street, Akron.
Tickets are $5 on Eventbrite. Additional donations are welcome.

Rosalie Murphy is Editor-in-Chief of The Devil Strip.

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