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On Stage, Chicago Students Tackle Immigration, Poverty, Race

August 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Students at the Albany Park Theatre Project in Chicago research, write and perform plays about their own communities, tackling tough issues like immigration, poverty and race while learning about theater in an area where extracurricular activities are few and far between. Jeffrey Brown reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: to the story of a Chicago theater where the scripts come from the real lives of the young performers.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

ACTRESS: I did it. I did it. I did it. I ran away.

JEFFREY BROWN: In a new play called “Home/Land,” two young lovers played by two teenagers leave behind their small village in Mexico for a long and dangerous trip to the United States.

ACTRESS: Mommy will be sad. But we will get married and they will forgive us.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a scene that tells of the pain and promise of one kind of immigrant experience.

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ACTRESS: Tell me your story. Tell me how this happened. Tell me how we happened. Tell me, so I believe.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the play, several characters say to one another, “Tell me our story.” It’s a line that reflects the guiding spirit of an ambitious youth theater program that explores real life stories from this diverse Chicago neighborhood.

Albany Park in northwest Chicago is a classic gateway neighborhood, home to generations of immigrants beginning with the Germans and Swedes in the 19th century. Today, more than 40 different languages can be heard in its streets and homes.

It was here 15 years ago that David Feiner and his wife, Laura Wiley, founded the Albany Park Theater Project.

DAVID FEINER, co-founder, Albany Park Theater Project: I’m so proud of what all of you have given to this play.

JEFFREY BROWN: Their idea, to work with young people from many backgrounds, who would research, write and perform plays that tell their own stories.

DAVID FEINER: The idea of working in a neighborhood where you would have stories that came from literally all over the world and that were fresh, were immediate, you would also have access to cultural traditions from all over the world, that was thrilling.

JEFFREY BROWN: Laura Wiley died in 2007 of ovarian cancer. David Feiner has kept on. The Albany Park Theater Project, now with a staff of six and 23 young members, has built a strong after-school program that has produced more than 50 plays.

ACTOR: I was born into food stamps. We went to the grocery store, swiped the Link card for food, paid cash for everything else.

JEFFREY BROWN: Taking on subjects such as poverty, child abuse and racism, issues that the students themselves confront.

DAVID FEINER: Some of them have lived in poverty. They understand some of the most difficult and unpleasant subjects intimately. As a theater artist, I want to be able to participate in some of the most significant discussions and debates happening in our world today. And I want to do with that teenagers.

MAGGIE POPADIAK, associate director, Albany Park Theater Project: And thank your partner.

JEFFREY BROWN: Maggie Popadiak is the company’s associate director.

MAGGIE POPADIAK: When people join APTP, they come because their friends either dragged them or they hear that we have a kitchen or there’s a cute girl there. And so — but — and there’s like some interest. . .

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s high school, after all, right?

MAGGIE POPADIAK: It’s high school, after all.

And — but at the same time, you know, people come here and they show up and they realize that it’s more than just the opportunity to just be on the stage and perform and be an actress. We’re telling the stories of people who are often ignored or stigmatized.

JEFFREY BROWN: Maggie in fact was herself one of the first students to join the company. Her parents had fled communist Poland and come to Chicago in the 1970s. But her father died when Maggie was very young and her mother, working as a maid, battled alcoholism.

MAGGIE POPADIAK: Are you guys ready?

JEFFREY BROWN: The theater group became first a refuge and then something more. And Maggie wrote a play about her mother’s experience.

MAGGIE POPADIAK: So her struggle and her triumph is something that we put on the stage. And seeing that was — for my family, it became a healing process. But it was through her coming to see the play that we were able to have a conversation about what that meant for us and how that — you know, how that made us a strong family.

JEFFREY BROWN: With “Home/Land,” Albany Park has taken on perhaps its most controversial subject yet, illegal immigration. It’s explored through a series of vignettes and stories, including one of a young Palestinian woman who came to the U.S. as a child.

ACTRESS: We just need your I.D.

ACTRESS: My I.D.?

ACTRESS: For the paperwork.

ACTRESS: I have my student I.D.

ACTRESS: Birth certificate?

ACTRESS: It’s from Jordan.

ACTRESS: Passport?

ACTRESS: Jordan.

ACTRESS: Social Security card.

ACTRESS: Yes. But it says not valid for employment.

JEFFREY BROWN: In another scene, a Mexican-born father held in a detention center and threatened with deportation is visited by his son.

ACTOR: Why are you here? Why are you here? Why are you here? Did you do something wrong?

JEFFREY BROWN: These experiences too reflect the real lives of the young actors, some of whom are themselves undocumented or have family members who are.

They know this is tough territory and say their goal isn’t a political statement, but to humanize the issue.

Seventeen-year-old Bladimir Orduno is one of the young writer/actors.

BLADIMIR ORDUNO, Albany Park Theater Project: A lot of people don’t know about these things. That’s why we come up here and we tell them. That’s why we go into our community and gather these stories to share with people that don’t know what’s really going on.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bladimir, who will attend Pomona College on a full scholarship next fall, is himself an example of another key goal of the project, one that goes beyond the stage and into the classroom.

MAN: We’re going to quickly review what we just did.

JEFFREY BROWN: It has an after-school tutoring program and offers college counseling that most of these young people would never otherwise get.

BLADIMIR ORDUNO: Well, APTP really gave me that hope that I can go to college. And so throughout my high school years, you know, I started to do the best thing I can, straight-A student, everything.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, was there the expectation that you would go to college before that?

BLADIMIR ORDUNO: Well, you know, in my family, we’re not in such a good economic sense — standpoint. It really didn’t seem like I — I didn’t really receive much hope that I was actually going to go into college.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sixteen-year-old Lilia Escobar, whose parents are from Mexico and Colombia, says she plans to go to college, even though it’s not something her family encouraged.

LILIA ESCOBAR, Albany Park Theater Project: Now I feel like I’m capable of it all. I feel like I don’t ever have to be compared to my family, because I’m doing my own thing. I no longer feel like they’re keeping me out of anything, because now I can just say, this is what I want and this is what I’m going to do. And that’s only because I came here. And I don’t think I would have found that anywhere else.

JEFFREY BROWN: Randy Dang, whose parents immigrated from Vietnam, says the group provides a better alternative to the gangs and violence in the neighborhood.

ROBERT DANG, Albany Park Theater Project: I learned a lot about myself and what I can do, my limits. And I learned about these people I can relate to, I could talk to, I could be myself around.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Home/Land” is now playing to packed houses in its small community theater, and recognition for the Albany Park Theater Project continues to grow.

Chicago Sun Times theater critic Hedy Weiss, citing its unusually high standards for young people’s theater, wrote of its latest offering that where — quote — “politicians of every stripe have failed, this prodigiously gifted, exquisitely directed youth ensemble has triumphed.”