Elizabeth Keathley moved to the United State from the Philippines, married an American, and three years later registered to vote, even though she was not yet a citizen. As a result, the government ordered her deported.
“The Courtroom”is a re-enactment by Waterwell theater company of her deportation proceedings, using the transcript as edited by Arian Moayed, directed by Waterwell’s artistic director Lee Sunday Evans, with Ruthie Ann Miles as Immigration Judge Craig Zerbe, and Kathleen Chalfant as Chief Judge Frank H. Easterbrook for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. The play is being presented for free through February 1 in a series of court-like settings – the Gorman Moot Courtroom of Fordham Law School (where I saw its premiere last night), followed by Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse, St. Marks Church-in-Bowery, and the Judson Memorial Church.
The case itself took place over several different courtrooms over a number of years.
“I created this work because there is a common misunderstanding, I believe, in what it must actually be like to be an immigrant in this country,” says Moayed, the Tony-nominated actor (Bengal Tiger at the Bagdad Zoo, The Humans), who co-founded Waterwell, a 17-year-old company with a track record of site-specific adventures. (They staged the Blueprint Specials, four musicals commissioned by the U.S. Army during World War II, aboard the battleship Intrepid.)
“During the past summer,” Moayed continues, “with the incredible images and heartbreaking stories that were coming from asylum seekers on the border, Waterwell felt like we needed to respond through empathy and art.”
Why did he pick this particular case?
“As an Iranian immigrant, I immediately was drawn to Beth Keathley’s complicated relationship to language and her fears of being misunderstood.” Yet on the other hand, “as an American, I believe that we are a country of laws.” From the get-go, it’s clear Keathley (portrayed by Kristin Villanueva) is struggling – the judge swearing her in as a witness has to prompt her to say “I do.” The case revolves around whether she understood what was going on when, upon showing her foreign passport and visa to get her driver’s license, the clerk at the Illinois Department of Motor Vehicles encouraged her to register to vote as well, as part of the federal motor voter law.
Moayad hopes that the audience will walking away from this showing feeling empathy with what it must be like to go through the bureaucracy of the Immigration Court System. “I want people to feel what it must be like to be an immigrant.”
The plan is to perform this play all over the country.