By Darlene Donloe
Alex Alpharaoh is a successful playwright, actor, spoken word artist, social worker, and producer. All of those are impressive monikers, but the one designation he covets, the one label that has eluded him for 35 years, is that of an American citizen.
Alpharaoh, who grew up in Echo Park and South L.A., is one of those 800,000 undocumented immigrants whose stories continue to make front page news due to the current White House administration’s plans to end the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program that protects hundreds of thousands of undocumented émigrés, known as “Dreamers,” who came to the United States as children.
In an effort to put a face to the cause, Alpharaoh, whose mother learned English and earned two college degrees and whose father was a car painter, decided to write what he lives.
The result is WET: A DACAmented Journey, Alpharaoh’s 90-minute, one-man show about his life that is currently up for two 2018 Ovation Awards for Best Production and Best Playwriting.
Alpharaoh’s story not only peels back the desperation that Dreamers feel as they traverse the murky U.S. Immigration System, it also speaks to what it’s like to live your life as an American sans the coveted piece of legal paper as proof.
The show even caught the attention of California Congressman Adam Schiff, who called it a “powerful production, very moving.”
How He Got Here
When Alpharaoh, who hails from Guatemala, was only three months old, his mother, in search of a better life, sneaked him over the border hidden in the back seat of a smuggler’s car.
For 35 years, says Alpharaoh, he has lived in the shadows, praying no one would find out he was not legally supposed to be in the states. He remembers his mother advising and pleading with him not to let anyone know of his illegal status because it could mean deportation. So, for years, Alpharaoh says he lived his life as normally as possible – with that secret nagging him at every turn.
As a part of @THISSTAGE’s 28th Annual Ovations Series, Alpharaoh, an award-winning playwright who founded SP!T: Spoken Word Theatre, opened up about what it’s like to live every day of his life as a man without a country.
What #45 Said
I’m currently in New York doing an arts residency through Hi-ARTS Performance Space. I’m doing a presentation of WET here. When I heard what he [Alpharaoh refuses to call the President of the United States by name] said, it just floored me. For him to say countries like El Salvador and African countries, to say they are “shitholes”… it just floored me. If he wanted to look at the history of our country and the involvement it has had. Imperialist policies have created destabilization in these countries that force people to leave them. They are no longer able to live in these countries. If they are shitholes its largely in part because of foreign nations like us who come in and pillage the land. The president was accused of being a racist, which he is. He said negotiations with DACA are shut down. It’s frustrating and demoralizing, but at the same time, it strengthens the resolve of the people and the communities, including the African American communities. The black and brown issues have been inter-related for generations. Martin Luther King Jr. was for the same rights for African Americans and Latinos, so was Cesar Chavez. It’s the people who are racist who try to divide the people of color – so that they can easily control them. He’s [the President of the United States] not worthy of being called by his name. If there is no resolution in Congress, I could end up being deported to a country I don’t know.
It will be my first time at the Ovations. I’ve never been there before. To be nominated is a win for me whether I win or don’t. In my mind and heart, I’ve won. For my community of peers to acknowledge me is a deep honor and privilege for me. Would I like to win? Yes. It’s a victory nonetheless. It tells me the community sees the work and appreciates the work and accepts me as a member of the artistic community. I feel I have allies in the community. It’s the sentiment, the thought that I am grateful for. I’m super psyched.
As an artist, we strive to be honest and to tell the truth. We want to be as truthful as possible. If I can’t be truthful with my own stories, how will I be able to tell someone else’s story? How could I perform someone else words if I don’t have the courage to do my own? I’m setting myself up for a standard that I choose to be known for – which is quality work and quality writing. It’s great to create that kind of work myself. Writing this was extremely painful, but that’s my job. This is what I signed up for. This is my career path.
Living The Life
The feedback about DACAmented Journey has been positive, even overwhelming. I lived in the shadows for years. I’ve been here since I was three months old. I’ve had an outpouring of love and support. Complete strangers come up to me with tears in their eyes and say they will hide me. There is a sense of community. They need to help us. If you really love me and care – you have to help.
For 34 years of my life, I lived in an isolated bubble. Informing the wrong person of my status could be the difference in me having to leave this country. The community came out in solidarity. It put a face to the DACA movement. They realized that this is happening to real people, someone I know and have a friendship with. What happens to him or his daughter if he goes away? Yes, there is an entire contingency in case I’m deported. What to do if something happens to me. She has her mom. The good thing is she is almost 16. Soon, she will go off to college. Regardless of what happens to me, I gotta figure out how to use my resources to support my daughter. That is the primary objective. There is a need for more visibility and for more people to share their stories.
We all know about love and loss and family and reunification and home. These are all topics that are touched upon in the play. This is how I present it through a first-person narrative and spoken word – a blend of both. Everyone can connect to losing a loved one and the fear of uncertainty. It comes down to the power of faith, hope, and love.
Keep It Moving
During the Obama years, it was like – I got a chance to breathe for four years. There was very little fear of my being sent away. From 2013-2017 were good years. I don’t have a 24/7 fear. If so, I’d be crippled. I’d be home hiding. It’s more acknowledging the fear and the courage to push through it every day.
A one-man show can be powerful. This became a one-man show by happenstance. I had a slot for a solo show at Ensemble Studio Theatre’s Winterfest. I already had a different show. The show was about my time as a psychiatric social worker. I was stuck in Guatemala. I wasn’t sure I would be able to get back. I asked Liz Ross (Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA co-artistic director) if I could change the story I wanted to tell. I wrote the first draft to WET: A DACAmented Journey in four days. Then we work-shopped it in March and April of last year. Then we had the first run in August. It had gone through a lot of revisions and editing. I had to find the flow of the narrative through the stories that were being shared. It has gone through months of development now. It went through a new revision here in New York.
We’re just like you. The only difference is a piece of paper. We’re your neighbors, your plumbers, doctors, electricians, and best friends. Everyone in this country, whether they came from the Mayflower or not, everyone has an immigrant story.
Sure, I can understand the government’s position. I predicted it. I knew they were going to get rid of it and turn us into a bargaining chip. Republicans want to take credit. Democrats want to take credit. About 122 people lose DACA protection each day. By 2019 – all DACA will have lost their protection. I have this fear that come March 5, if no resolution is passed that the six months 45 gave will be the time they would have already started a task force for deportation.
People say the show has changed their thinking. I wouldn’t claim to take credit for that. People have come up to me and said they have been deeply moved. They say my courage has given them the courage to come out of the shadows.
I’m getting ready to work the early world premiere tour of WET: DACAmented Journey. We’re going through a developmental stage here and then I go back to Los Angeles and develop it some more. Then I will take it across the country. People can put a human face to the issue.
I was always warned. I was not allowed to talk about my immigration situation. It was the one thing that someone could use against me. I was to assimilate perfectly and do it so no one would question my presence in the country. As far as I’m concerned, I have always been an American.
A ‘Dangerous’ Man
I’ve known all my life that I wanted to be a performer. Ever since I was four-years-old when I saw Michael Jackson in Moonwalker. He was amazing. His ability to sing and dance and his charisma. He had so much soul. He bore it all for the audience. I haven’t always known how I was going to get here, but I knew this was my path. There were years where I was lost and wandered much like Jesus. He had to lose himself before He found himself. I came back to my purpose about 11 years ago as a college student. I’ve always been a poet since the age of nine.
The first time I performed in front of an audience, I was nine. I was living in Chicago. One of the things I took to Chicago from Los Angeles was a bootleg version of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album. My favorite song was Black or White. I would play it on repeat over and over and then when the class would start I would sing the lyrics to myself. I did it for a week. Finally, my teacher stopped me and asked what I was doing. She said I was distracting the class. She said, ‘If you don’t stop, I’m going to make you sing it in front of the whole class.’ I said, ‘Ok.’ She said, ‘You’re doing it tomorrow.’ She brought a boom box the next day. She played the song and I danced and sang at the top of my lungs. That was the first time I performed in front of an audience. By the time I was done, they clapped. I fell in love with that kind of attention.
Alpharaoh recently completed an arts residency at Hi-ARTS Performance Space in New York where he performed WET: A DACAmented Journey.