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New play at DePaul puts immigration in spotlight for young audiences

Juan Pablo Ocasio as El Coyote and Maria Teresa Matheus as La Mujer Azul rehearse the opening scene of "Augusta and Noble" at the Merle Reskin Theatre. | Provided

The Depaul University Theatre School is raising the curtain on their newest Chicago Playworks’ production for young audiences, with a show that addresses two issues middle schoolers may be facing in their own lives – the confusing transition from middle school to high school, and immigration.

Written by Chicago playwright Carlos Murillo, “Augusta and Noble” follows 14-year-old Gabi through a process that many pre-teen Chicagoans can relate to — admission to a selective enrollment high school. But when Castillo is accepted into Northside College Preparatory High School, a whole new set of problems unfolds.

Afraid that a new school may expose their immigration status, Gabi’s mother, Dolores, hides her acceptance letter. Gabi then learns of her status for the first time, and begins to confront the obstacles faced by children of undocumented immigrants.

“We have many Latino kids in our audience, we wanted to tell a story that would reflect some of their experiences,” said Lisa Portes, head of directing at The Theatre School. Portes said they deliberately chose the play after the 2016 election.

“This is something that young people right now are dealing with very directly,” said Murillo, the head of playwriting at DePaul.

Carlos Murillo’s new play follows a 14-year-old girl through the process of admission to a selective enrollment high school in Chicago — and what happens when she discovers her mother is undocumented. | Provided
Carlos Murillo’s new play follows a 14-year-old girl through the process of admission to a selective enrollment high school in Chicago — and what happens when she discovers her mother is undocumented. | Provided

Murillo wrote the play, which debuted in 2013, with inspiration from the Northwestern Settlement, a community center at the intersection of Augusta Boulevard and Noble Street. The playwright met with dozens of families involved with the center, asking them to share their own stories. Eventually, he met the person who inspired the character of Gabi: a “thoughtful, bright and mature” pre-teen girl, whose mother “carried a lot of fear with her because of her status,” Murillo said.

He wanted to tell their story to help explain immigration on an individual level.

“As opposed to large news stories with big audiences and lots of statistics, this focuses on one girl, and one family,” said Murillo. “When we can really focus on one individual, it changes our perception of the story.”

Both of the show’s lead actors – DePaul Theatre School students – immigrated to the U.S. in their adolescence, and think the play has the potential to help younger audiences understand immigration.

Mariana Castro Flores, who plays Gabi, was born and raised in Bogota, Colombia. She thinks a lot of kids might identify with her character’s inability to understand “what it means that you’re parents just don’t have the papers they need to be here.”

Playing the character of Dolores is Claudia Quesada, who immigrated to the U.S. from Matanzas, Cuba, at age 14. She said she hopes the play will teach children of undocumented immigrants not to judge their parents’ decisions, and encourage parents to be honest with their children.

In the show, Gabi’s character is introduced on her first day of high school. As she travels from West Town to the Northside, a parallel dream sequences plays out, telling the story of “her mother’s harrowing journey across the desert,” said Murillo —a journey Gabi has only just learned of.

“There’s a realistic story, and then there’s a desert dream story,” Murillo said, describing the dream sequence as “theatrical, haunting and ultimately beautiful.”

When the lights first come up on the stage, the character of El Coyote creeps through the aisle. His character reflects a term often used for a person who helps undocumented immigrants cross the border, and is offset by a goddess-like character, La Mujer Azul.

The two characters introduce “a level of fantasy that younger watchers will connect with,” said Murillo. The show is aimed for audiences ages 8 and up.

“Augusta and Noble” opens on Oct. 5 at the Merle Reskin Theatre. The play will run through Nov. 11, with performances Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at 10 a.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. An opening cay autograph session with the cast will take place after the Oct. 7 show. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased online.