By DEAN M. SHAPIRO, Special to the CCJN
With the issue of immigration dominating the news recently thanks to a record-breaking government shutdown over funding for a border wall, award-winning writer/director Mari Kornhauser’s latest play, “Seeking Asylum,” is perfectly timed.
“Seeking Asylum,” a one-act, two-character stage production, opens this Thursday, February 7, at The Art Klub, 1941 Arts Street, New Orleans for a three-performance run through Sunday the 10th. Reese Johanson, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Art Klub NOLA, Inc., is the show’s director.
The play is set in the year 2040 but it incorporates elements of the past and present as well as the future. The questions asked by an immigration interrogator (performed by Shameka Gray) of a hopeful asylum seeker (Lisa Moraschi Shattuck), are based on an actual series of 29 questions posed by immigration officials throughout the U.S. in the early 20th century when immigration – primarily from eastern and southern Europe – was at its peak.
An answer to any of those 29 questions deemed to be unsatisfactory to an immigration inspector could result in the denial of citizenship to a hopeful new arrival and they could be sent back to the country of their origin.
Kornhauser, an LSU professor who is an Art Klub artist-in-residence through February, has incorporated those 29 questions into her production in such a way as to make it applicable to the present and even the future 20 years from now. She sums up the issue with a simple, direct statement: “Citizenship is never guaranteed because it isn’t.”
Descended from eastern European immigrants who arrived in the U.S. in the 1910s and having a Jewish mother, Kornhauser’s play is a byproduct of her own background. The complex issue of immigration is something she feels very strongly about, especially as it pertains to what is occurring in the present with immigrants from Latin America being detained in prison-like facilities along the American side of the border with Mexico.
“I’m viewing the current world through the lens of ‘America First’ being the Nazi Party in the early ‘30s before Pearl Harbor got us into World War II,” Kornhauser said. “So I view everything through Germany in 1933 as to what’s going on today. I was brought up with the saying that ‘citizenship is never guaranteed,’” she repeated, citing the millions of Jews and Romani (or Roma, the preferred term for gypsies) who were put to death during the Holocaust despite being citizens of their respective nations.
Without divulging key elements of the plot, Kornhauser noted that the sometimes-heated interaction between the interrogator and the interviewee forms the core of the play’s action. “Basically the premise was to take the future and then use immigration – the 29 questions on the manifest – and then broaden it out and talk about the present through those initial questions.”
In addition, the plot turns heavily on the issue of climate change, another concern about which Kornhauser holds strong feelings. She ominously envisions a dystopian future in which the United States has undergone a schism that splits the country into separate nations whose boundaries conform to today’s individual states and regions. People attempting to migrate from one of these new nations to another might be doing so because climate change has adversely affected the nation from which they are emigrating. Droughts brought on by rising temperatures which, in turn, lead to famines is an example she cited.
In Kornhauser’s 2040 scenario, the interaction between the two actors takes place at a point of entry on the border between the nations of Texas and Louisiana.
Kornhauser cites the similarities between the World War II detention camps in which American citizens of Japanese descent were imprisoned and the containment facilities of today in which thousands of Hispanic asylum seekers are currently being held. One of the visual images she is using to promote the play shows a bare arm with numbers handwritten on it, similar to the tattooing that was done with Jews and Romani in WW II-era concentration camps.
The photo, Kornhauser said, “is a direct reference to what’s going on . . . not at this moment to direct extermination . . . but all the dog whistles and everything else we’re seeing today are exactly what happened in pre-World War II. America actually had internment camps, so they’re easily going in that direction with some of the incidents that happened at the border before and after I wrote this play.”
Returning to the subject of global warming, Kornhauser said, “As climate change starts to affect our country, we’re going to start seeing resource wars.” The damaging effects of climate change are already beginning to show up here in Louisiana, Kornhauser added, citing how coastal erosion has negatively impacted riparian communities and their way of life.
“We’re losing coastlines and communities are being lost,” she said. “So once the water (supply) becomes polluted by seawater or brackish water or if corporations start buying up our aquifers, then only certain people are going to be able to get the good water,” she added, hinting that such developments could lead to civil unrest.
However, despite dealing with hot-button issues that fuel debates among today’s lawmakers and special interest groups, Kornhauser insists, “I’m not a political person by nature or in my art and I don’t consider this a political piece. I think it’s more of a think piece to stir people out of complacency into empathy and a call to action. I felt like I needed to say something because what’s happening is wrong. It’s just wrong. I don’t have any solutions; I just know that basically putting people in internment camps is inhumane in the ways they’re doing it.”
Kornhauser envisions “Seeking Asylum” as the first play in a trilogy with similar themes stretching up to the year 2065. “This is the first in a series of plays about climate change and immigration and about the diaspora that’s going to be forming in our own country,” she explained. The two remaining plays will also likely be kept to single acts and small casts in order to keep production costs down, she added. She termed the full project as “a work in progress.”
The play, Kornhauser explained, is audience interactive, though she declined to elaborate on what that interaction would entail. “If I tell you it won’t be a surprise,” she said.
Doors open for all three shows at 7:30 p.m. and show times are 8:00 p.m. Admission is $12 in advance; $18 at the door, although Art Klub policies state that no one is turned away at the door for lack of funds. Tickets can be ordered at www.artklub.eventbrite.com. A question and answer session will immediately follow each performance.