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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Plays spotlight immigrant and refugee youth

Playwright Charlie Steak (left) works with cast members for a Rising Youth Theatre production of "Finding Family" being performed this weekend at Phoenix Center for the Arts. Photo by Ashley Hare.

Rising Youth Theatre in Phoenix, which performs at Phoenix Center for the Arts, has been working for months with immigrant youth to transform their experiences into theater works being premiered this weekend at the downtown arts center.

“Finding Family: Three Short Plays About Immigrant Youth” includes three works directed by Xanthia Angel Walker, who co-founded Rising Youth Theatre with Sarah Sullivan in 2011. Both hold MFA degrees from Arizona State University.

“Odisea” by Charlie Steak is the story of youth who travel with a human smuggler (“coyote”) from Guatemale to the United States. “Despedida” by José Zárate is about a teen who leaves home to travel to America without telling his mother goodbye. “Las Voces” by Andrés Ancalá features several of the activities immigrant youth enjoyed during RYT workshops.

More than 200 immigrant youth ages 9 to 17 worked with Rising Youth Theatre to write and create these plays, which reflect their real life experiences. Weekend performances (7pm Saturday, Dec. 1 and Sunday, Dec. 2) feature young actors who auditioned for roles in “Finding Family.” Together the plays run about an hour, and Walker describes them as appropriate for viewers ages 10 and up.

“Some of the things that have happened to these kids [death, extortion, kidnapping] is hard,” reflects Walker. She says the plays are meant to inspire empathy without watering down experiences based in reality.

During rehearsals this week, young actors worked with scripts in hand, and Walker notes that audience members seeing these plays for the first time will see a hybrid of staged reading and fully developed production. The actors were energetic while rehearsing Wednesday night, doing cartwheels across the stage and talking excitedly with one another before Walker gathered them to run their scenes and get notes on needed adjustments.

Osiris Cuen (left) performs the role of Miguel in "¡Bocón!" opening tonight in Tempe. Photo courtesy of ASU.

Tonight the School of Theatre and Film at ASU opens a MainStage production spotlighting challenges facing refugee youth. “¡Bocón!” by playwright Lisa Loomer imagines the journey of a 12-year-old boy in a repressive South American country whose parents are taken by soldiers. Miguel’s reputation as a “big mouth” earns him the nickname “Bocón,” but the boy loses his voice out of fear once his parents are “disappeared.”

While traveling alone from South America toward Los Angeles, Miguel is befriended by characters from Mexican and Central American mythology. “Some are friends and some are foes,” explains Megan Weaver, an ASU MFA Directing candidate who is directing the work. “Miguel goes through a transformation from innocence and safety to finding the courage to speak and share his story with the world,” Weaver adds.

“¡Bocón!” is often described as a “fable filled with humor, mysticism and song.” Weaver notes that it’s “probably best for ages 8 and up” and that there’s a special ticket offer for those age 13 and under who attend this Sunday’s 2pm performance. The play runs through Sunday, Dec. 9 at the Galvin Theatre on ASU’s Tempe campus.

ASU senior theater major Osiris Cuen performs the role of Miguel. Weaver calls the play “a gorgeous work of theater” that includes both music and dance. The guitar and an African drum called a djembe are played on stage during “¡Bocón!” — which also features more than a dozen masks created by Valley artist Zarco Guerrero and two eight-foot tall puppets. The play includes human, animal and mythological characters.

“¡Bocón!” explores the struggle of bringing one’s cultural heritage to a new landscape, reflects Weaver. It’s a struggle facing youth who immigrate to America, says Weaver, but also refugees from other parts of the world such as Syria, Gaza and Sudan. Weaver suggests parents talk with their children before seeing the play about friends they know from other countries and how those friends might feel about trying to fit in and adjust to a new environment.

Weaver shares that the play’s message of finding one’s own voice in the face of fear is applicable to all youth — and adults as well. It’s really a story of courage and coming of age, says Weaver. “How can I be who I was and who I am going to be?” That’s the central question of “¡Bocón!”

Click here to learn more about “¡Bocón!” and here to learn more about “Finding Family.”

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Lynn Trimble

Lynn Trimble writes for RAISING ARIZONA KIDS and blogs daily about arts and culture at


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