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Uncertain Times :: Alex Alpharaoh on His Show 'WET: A DACAmented Journey'

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Nov 7, 2018
Alex Alpharaoh
Alex Alpharaoh  (Source:Youthana Yoiuos)

ArtsEmerson welcomes a timely work, and an exceptionally courageous artist, to Boston when Alex Alpharaoh — described in his bio as "an award-winning stage and film actor, writer, director, producer, spoken word artist, solo performer, and teaching artist from Los Angeles" — presents his one-man show "WET: A DACAmented Journey."

The title, of course, plays off the words DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — and "undocumented," the word that's used to describe people who are in the United States without legal documentation. DACA was an Obama administration policy intended to help a special class of undocumented residents in the United States: People who were brought here as children, who have grown up here, and in every way are indistinguishable from ordinary Americans: They speak like anyone else, work, go to school, serve in the military... and yet, even though they might not even know it, they are not American citizens.

Worse, they could (and sometimes are) be tossed out of the country by an immigration system that's mired in political arguments about "paths to citizenship" versus "sanctuary" for "illegals." It's an ugly situation, all the more so because the people trapped in it may be entirely innocent and unwitting. It was to offer some relief to people who face the prospect of being ejected from the only home nation they have ever known, but the Trump administration, early on, hastened to announce its intention to do away with DACA. Only the intervention of the courts has stopped the administration from doing just that — and inflicting unknown carnage on the lives of the 800,000 people currently living under DACA's provisions.

EDGE chatted with Alpharaoh on the very same day millions of Americans were going to the polls to vote in midterm elections that had been characterized in the weeks leading up to the day by the president's harping on the subject of a "caravan" of desperate, poverty-stricken people fleeing violence in their homelands. The president characterized those migrants as "dangerous" and "tough," and repeatedly claimed that terrorists and criminals lurked among them, waiting only for their chance to storm our borders and brutalize our people.

It was rhetoric not everyone appreciated — especially not in the wake of the administration's controversial separations of migrant children, some of them very young or even infants, from their parents.

Against the political background of the times and the day, EDGE and Alpharaoh talked about family, country, identity, and the sometimes dangerous requirements that come with a commitment to integrity and a sense of duty to one's art.


EDGE: The midterms are today. What outcomes do you hope for? What do you fear?

Alex Alpharaoh: I'm really hoping that at the very least the Democrats can take back the House. It would be great to take back both the House and the Senate, but, you know, that would be a little bit more difficult. I'm just hoping that there's be some kind of equilibrium started and balance restored to our congress.

EDGE: Approximately 800,000 people living in the United States were given some relief by the Obama-era DACA, which was extended to them because they were brought to this country as children. The Trump administration has ended that program. As an artist, and as a social worker, what are you seeing as a result?

Alex Alpharaoh: The change in policy has created a culture of fear in the undocumented community. So people that have been insulted by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program suddenly find themselves in peril once again; find themselves in real danger of being removed from the only home that they've ever known. It creates a culture of fear within the undocumented community because a lot of these people have their roots in the United States. They have regular jobs and regular lives and families suddenly, they have to worry that they may not be able to be here because of the administration's stance and efforts to try to get rid of the program.

EDGE: Are you one of the people affected personally by this change in the policy?

Alex Alpharaoh: Yes.


Alex Alpharaoh  (Source:Elisa Noemí)

EDGE: I can't even imagine the kind of upheaval it would mean to be sent to a country where one might not know the language or the customs or have any support network of any kind.

Alex Alpharaoh: That's exactly the sentiment, right? There are over 800,000 undocumented DACA recipients that, if they were to lose their status or their legal presence in the program, suddenly they old find themselves stranded in a country that they have no real knowledge of. A lot of them don't have any roots in the country of origin. When it comes to language, when it comes to policy, when it comes to laws, they would be completely in the dark.

EDGE And how about you? You're doing this play at some risk, and in theory, ICE could come in and take you away in the idle of a performance. If you were thrown out of the country, what would that mean for you? Would you find yourself in a situation where you don't know what to do or how to get around?

Alex Alpharaoh: Yeah, that's exactly what would happen. My roots are in Los Angeles, California; my family's in Los Angeles; I would have no real knowledge of how to get by, I speak Spanish, but I don't speak it very well, so it would be very obvious and very clear to anyone in Guatemala, which is where I was born, that I don't belong there — that I'm not necessarily from there. I mean, I may look like them, but I grew up in the United States, I've been in the United States since I was three months old. So that would definitely create dire circumstances, And it would be cruel and unusual punishment for my daughter, who is an American citizen, to suddenly be without her father.

EDGE: And, I mean — you look like one of us! America is a nation of people whose families came, at some point, from all over.

Alex Alpharaoh: Correct.

EDGE: Your show is described as being about life as a political football. I can commiserate, to an extent, since my husband and I have often felt that way in the past — and, after eight years of sanity with Obama in the White House, we now feel endangered all over again, as you do. But do you feel that living as a political football gives you valuable insight and perspective, maybe increases your capacity for empathy?

Alex Alpharaoh: Most definitely it does. It forces me to. I have to be willing to be empathetic, and I have to be willing to come to a place of love and compassion each time that I perform the show, each time that I have a talkback, each time that I engage someone in a conversation, whether it's causal or an interview, or whether it's someone who just doesn't agree with anything [I'm trying to say] and is completely anti-immigrant, I have to be willing to see their humanity and love them even though they may night agree with me — even though they may hate me because of the color of my skin or because of where I was born. A lot of times when we can see beyond the superficiality and we get to the core of an individual's humanity, we come to find out that we have much more in common than we don't.

EDGE: Have you explored these themes and messages in your other spoken word and performance poetry works as well as in "WET: A DACAmented Journey?"

Alex Alpharaoh: Yeah, I've written other plays; I've written shows that touch upon the issues that are affecting the African American community, issues that are affecting the LGBTQ community, issues that are affecting women — basically, any marginalized group of individuals,

Gentrification is something that is affecting my hometown of Los Angeles in very strong ways; people are being displaced, there's a lot of poverty, there's a lot of inequality in wealth, in the way that it's distributed and used. These are the issues that I touch upon. I don't make up the core issues of the stories I write, but they do serve as backdrops to a lot of the circumstances that affect the characters in my stories.

EDGE: In the case of "WET," and also your other works, do you find that a lot of the people who come to your show are already on the same page with you? Or do you find that a lot of people may have a different point of view when they walk in the door, but perhaps you reach them with a new perspective?

Alex Alpharaoh: I think it's the latter, and I'm grateful for that because it's easy to preach to the choir, yes? It's a lot more difficult to reach somebody who art the very least is on the fence. If you come and you see my show, the only way you're going to see my show if you're absolutely anti-immigrant is if somebody forced you to. I don't necessarily want someone to feel like they're obligated to come and see the show, but if at the very least you have the curiosity to know more about this debate, and see a human side of this very polarized issue, that's a good start. And if I do my job, and if I tell the story as it's been created for the audience, the individual may walk away with a much more open willingness to want to have a constructive dialogue about this issue.

EDGE: So when you do engage people who are on the other side of the debate, do you find that they are reasonable people and it's possible to have a dialogue?

Alex Alpharaoh: That's the point! Regardless of red or blue, right-wing or left-wing, we're human beings, This is a great country; this is the greatest country in the world. Americans, we're good people; we're good people who oftentimes can be misled. I think if we get to the core of our humanity, we strip away the superficiality, we are inherently good people, and people are always willing to be open if you can see their humanity, so, yeah, often times it doesn't matter what their political background is or what their thoughts are when they come in. After they see the show, most of the time there's a willingness to talk more about the issue and to empathize and sympathize and come from a place of compassion and understanding.

EDGE: You're a spoken word artist and you teach a class on Spoken Word and Performance Poetry. How do you characterize those art forms as opposed to the more traditional one-man show? How do those forms serve your message?

Alex Alpharaoh: I think that we learn the rules so that we can bend them and break them right? As an artist, that is, speaking strictly as an artist. When I teach my Fundamentals of Spoken Word and Performance Poetry class, I'm not worried about the things that are taught, I'm more interested in giving people the tools so that they can find ways to creatively express themselves and in turn be able to share their unique perspective and experiences as a human being, And so there are tools that I make an effort to share with the people who take my classes so they can feel empowered to activate their voices and share what they have to say. I think that a lot of times what happens if you involve too much structure, it tends to turn people away. It tends to push people away from the possibility of just being able to vent through the processes of artistic expression.

Initially, when I start writing something I'm not thinking of the rules and the structure, I'm thinking about, What do I want to say, and how do I want to say it? And then the formatting kind of comes later on the process of revision.


Alex Alpharaoh  (Source:Youthana Youos)

EDGE: You mentioned your daughter a moment ago — she's a U.S. citizen. What is your response to the president's statement that he intends to use an executive order to change the Constitution and deny citizenship to some people born on U.S. soil? Is this something that worries you?

Alex Alpharaoh: I'm rolling my eyes right now.

[Laughter]

Alex Alpharaoh: Because I think that's absurd. But it's also dangerous that that thought is being passed around in the White House. And that's why it's so important to vote — to become engaged in the politics of our country. Because they want to challenge the 14th Amendment of our Constitution; they do want to, you know, test the boundaries of what an executive order could potentially do. But stripping people of their citizenship because their parents aren't documented? That's really extreme.

I feel like this administration will test the boundaries on almost anything and everything, and see how much they can get away with. And if they can get away with one thing, then they're going to move on to the next thing, and then to the next thing... We as a nation, and especially people who have the privilege to vote, they should exercise that right. That's what's going to prevent a lot of these bad policies from coming to fruition. They might not affect people right now, but later on, they could. Look at what a happened at that synagogue a few weeks ago in Pittsburgh — this crazy person who's been radicalized all of a sudden believes that somehow the Jewish population is responsible for this caravan that's coming from Honduras and Latin America? Like, how do you correlate those things?

EDGE: Since you broach the subject, what are your thoughts on the caravan which, in the last couple of weeks, has become this huge talking point just before the midterm elections, as well as out general political anxieties?

Alex Alpharaoh: Well, I mean, I think that it's a political ploy. It's a smoke and mirrors situation — the left hand flashing in one direction so that it distracts you from what the right hand is doing. To sent 15,000 troops to the Southern border in response to these migrants? They are looking for opportunities and work, and some form of stabilization, because a lot of what's happening in their countries has to do directly with policies that our country has implemented by our government now or in the past. We have to take ownership of that. It's similar to what was happening during JFK's administration and the Vietnam conflict — the United States got involved in assisting the south in a creating a government, and all of a sudden that government goes rogue, and now you have a problem on your hands. There's a lot of similarities of things that have happened in the past that are starting to repeat themselves now in terms of policies. It's a big issue. It's not as simple as, "Make sure they don't come over! They're gonna come and take our jobs!" What jobs? You know? We're celebrating the best economy we've had in ten years, unemployment is under three percent, there are jobs that are being created by the thousands every month, so the country's in a good place. And then you have these migrants, these people who are looking for opportunities; they are leaving their countries that are war-torn, full of violence and drugs, full of poverty and a lack of opportunities for people to just live with the basic essentials in their communities. They have no other choice but to try and migrate and seek a better opportunity.

EDGE: You could just stand back; you could just lie low; but here you are, speaking out and presenting your show, and in the process, you are actually endangering yourself. What's driving you to take this sort of risk?

Alex Alpharaoh: I'm an artist. This is what I signed up to do — it's my purpose in life, how I show up in the world. I have a social responsibility. I have a voice and a platform. I have a story to share. It would be cowardly for me not to. It would be irresponsible for me not to. As an undocumented American — keyword, American - I have to exercise my First Amendment rights because whether I have papers or not, everyone's entitled to the First Amendment, and I'm using it. I'm not using to it bash the administration; I'm not using it to make a political stance either to the left or to the right; I'm simply sharing my story. I'm simply doing what I've been training to do for the better part of the last twelve years of my life.


"WET: A DACAmented Journey" plays from Nov. 8 - 25 at the Emerson Paramount Center. For tickets and more information, please go to https://artsemerson.org/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::permalink=wet&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::context_id=


Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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