Dealing with the dream

Patty Gallardo, Lorena Crespo, and Maribel Adams act out some of the frustrations they've felt in the land whose most prominent symbol is the Statue of Liberty (Christina Montoya). — File photo by Lynn Christoffers

The American Dream can be illusory, a fact that was very clearly illustrated Friday night by a performance called Immigrant Voices, Nightmares and Dreams in the library at the regional high school. In front of an audience of 50, three Island women, all originally from South America, described and acted out some of the difficulties that they and many immigrants, especially those with limited English, encounter daily.

The short performance piece began with the women’s dreams being dashed by an authority figure played by Eduardo Banegas of Argentina. Each recited her personal hope for a new life in America. “I can get a job,” said Maribel Umpiérrez Adams, originally from Uruguay. Her optimism was countered by the dismissive “But you can’t make a decent wage. You’re the bottom of the barrel.”

“I can get a house or a car,” said Patty Gallardo, from Chile, hopefully. “But you can’t get a mortgage and you can’t get a license,” was the response.

“I can go to college,” said Lorena Crespo from Ecuador. But she heard, “You’ll pay triple as an international student.”

As each expression of hope was cut short by the voice of reality, a living Statue of Liberty (portrayed by Christina Montoya, who helped choreograph the piece) wilted sympathetically. The three Latino women propped Lady Liberty back up and continued throughout the 15-minute piece to demonstrate their resilience in the face of the loneliness and frustration of starting over in a new country. Director Lynn Ditchfield and Fern Thomas opened up the performance with a medley of traditional songs, concluding with Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”

The performance was a clever pastiche of songs (including one written by Willy Mason of West Tisbury), dance, a recitation from Macbeth, dream sequences, shared vignettes, and a humorous role-reversal exercise with Ms. Ditchfield experiencing monolingual distress.

The piece is the collaborative effort of Ms. Ditchfield and members of her ACE MC course in which conversational English is taught through improvisational theater games. Previous performances have included other students of the course, which began five years ago. “Theater is a great vehicle for learning English,” says Ms. Ditchfield, who also teaches a workshop for educators called Teaching Language and Literature through the Arts.

Ms. Ditchfield is a former Spanish teacher and long-time theater educator. “I love doing theater, especially the kind of theater that is storytelling,” she says. She notes that she integrated her students’ real-life experiences into the piece performed on Friday.

During the performance and in a follow-up Q&A, the three women spoke of the trials they faced before they gained fluency in English. They shared stories of their difficulties in obtaining work and making friends, their concerns about their children, etc. The women also spoke honestly about the associated embarrassment — being perceived as simple, not being able to understand, or tell jokes.

A video that followed the performance introduced some of the past and present participants (including two Brazilian women) through snippets from interviews which were interwoven with scenes from the performance piece. After the video, Ms. Ditchfield introduced Kati Johnsen, a former member of her educators’ workshop. Ms. Johnsen owns a children’s sweater business that employs more than 200 men and women in Peru. She recently began a charitable initiative called Chaska Hill that offers work, mentoring, and education to women in a small impoverished Peruvian town.

Ms. Johnsen had available for sale some of the woven and knitted products from Chaska Hill. The organization’s conversion into a nonprofit was her final project for Ms. Ditchfield’s workshop. She spoke about this endeavor, and also used the opportunity to announce an upcoming United Nations forum that she is participating in this week in New York with one of her Peruvian associates, a village elder.

The three performers and Ms. Ditchfield mingled with audience members at the end of the night before heading off for a celebratory dinner at Sharky’s. The women have formed a close bond with each other and with others in the class. They spoke enthusiastically about the unique learning opportunity. Says Ms. Gallardo, “I think every student should learn more than just how to survive.”

Ms. Umpierrez’s dream sequence, in which she confronts her fears during an encounter with a threatening tiger, forms a pivotal part in the piece. “It’s exactly the same way we have fear to speak until we face it and go out there and face people,” she says.

Ms. Crespo, who hopes to become a counselor someday, comments, “It’s a gift. Theater is the best way to learn English because you feel free to express your feelings and emotions. You don’t feel alone. I feel that I have friends now.” She adds, “The idea is to encourage non-English speaking people from the community to take the class. Some people are afraid.”

On August 7, the performance will be included in a “one-day university” that Ms. Ditchfield is hosting called Standing at a Crossroads – Looking Backwards, Looking Forward. “I hope to provide people with a lifelong learning opportunity that bridges ages and cultures,” she says of her mission in presenting the piece, and her philosophy behind founding ACE MV in general. “Nightmares and Dreams exemplifies community education because they took their lessons, and lessons of tolerance, into the community.”