Eugene play ‘We Are Neighbors’ sparks dialogue about immigration at UO performance

“We Are Neighbors” actors practice lines while they prepare for their EMU Redwood Auditorium performance. (Max Egener/Emerald)

The play “We Are Neighbors” tells the captivating stories of real immigrants living in Lane County and their experiences with belonging, loss and new beginnings. It’s a half-hour one-act play in which a continuously revolving cast of local amateur and professional actors read from a script. On March 6, the University of Oregon student group No Lost Generation brought the play to campus at the EMU Redwood Auditorium.

The play is the shorter, touring version of the play “Now, I Am Your Neighbor,” which the Community Alliance of Lane County (CALC) and the Minority Voices Theater showed three consecutive nights last September at Eugene’s Very Little Theater. Both plays are adaptations of a play CALC originally produced 20 years ago as part of the “We Are Neighbors” project with the Network for Immigrant Justice. The original project intended to tell the stories of immigrants living in Lane County using the play, a photography exhibit and a quilt.

Therese Picado, the director of the EMU performance, said all three shows in the fall were sold out. “By the second and third night, we had people lining up two and a half hours before the show,” Picado said.

To create the new play, CALC and other members of the project conducted dozens of interviews with residents of Lane County who are immigrants to the United States. The interviewers sought to understand what it’s like to be an immigrant living in Lane County.

Local playwright Nancy Hopps wove together common themes and experiences from the interviews into a fictional narrative set in a private room of a local restaurant where the main character Elena works during the day and is having her 21st birthday party.

Many of the actors in the play have personal connections to the issues that it addresses. The actors discussed their connections to those issues during a Q&A session with the audience following the play.

“I’m a first generation American and my parents left Mexico under some pretty dark circumstances,” said Isabel Smythe Hernandez who plays Elena. “When someone reached out to me about potentially being in this play I thought, ‘I have to do this. I have to do something to help make these voices heard.’”

Throughout the play, characters reminisce about their home countries, which include Guatemala, Germany, Palestine, China, Madagascar, and Syria. They reflect on their largely supportive, but sometimes ignorant new community in Eugene, and discuss their struggles coming to Eugene, navigating immigrant law and dealing with the Trump administration’s decisions on policies like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA).

The plot advances as Jorge, Elena’s DREAMer friend from Guatemala, becomes worried that his mother hasn’t showed up to the party with the birthday cake. Unable to contact his mother on her phone, Jorge reaches out to her boss. He informs Jorge that officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement showed up and took away two employees, one of whom may have been Jorge’s mother, who is undocumented.

“I can’t believe this country is becoming a place where the government asks people for their papers,” says Miss Schormüller, Elena’s third grade teacher whose parents survived the Holocaust.

The underlying tension of not knowing what happened to Jorge’s mother contrasted sharply with the cheerful party. That tension was palpable for viewers.

“I thought it was really powerful how throughout the play you’re constantly wondering what happened to Jorge’s mom,” said UO sophomore Momo Wilms-Crowe, who is a member of No Lost Generation. “I think having that sense of anxiety is a day-to-day lived experience of many immigrants.”

No Lost Generation’s mission is to help educate UO students about the current refugee crisis in the Middle East and North Africa through events like this play.

“I thought this play communicated exactly what some of our goals are,” said No Lost Generation member and UO senior Natalie Tichenor, who organized the event with CALC. “It’s about creating a dialogue, connecting members of the community and celebrating diversity.”

The play is available to be produced free of charge at schools, places of worship and community events. Anyone can inquire about booking the play by contacting Therese Picado at [email protected].