Howwastheshow (HWTS) reviewer, Janet Preus, sat down with Cory Hinkle and Victoria (Tory) Stewart, the writers of a new play, “Clandestino,” premiering in the Twin Cities June 15, to learn about its context in recent history and the collaborative process used to create the piece.
Cory: Jeremy Wilhem, the director, brought the idea to Tory in 2003 because he was interested in Postville, Iowa, and all the ethnicities that made it a kind of “home town of the world.”
A slaughterhouse—in fact, the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the world, perhaps—drew workers from such diverse backgrounds as Hasidic Jews and Guatamalans. Wilhelm and Tory wrote a play about that, but an event in 2008 in Postville changed everything, and a quite different story emerged.
Cory: The slaughterhouse in Postville was raided by the federal government, and it became more interesting. Then it became about immigration and immigration reform.
Close to 400 workers (Guatemalans, Mexicans, Israelis and Ukrainians) were charged. Offered a plea agreement in exchange for a guilty plea to lesser charges, 297 accepted the agreement and pleaded guilty to document fraud. “Fast track” hearings over the next three days expedited the process, and they were sentenced on the spot—most to five months in prison and deportation afterward. With a third of the population of the little town gone, the community was devastated.
Tory: It destroyed the economy of the town. They were saying that sales in every store, which had started to thrive, suddenly they’re down 40 percent. They had to bring grief counselors into the schools. You’re in a class with 20 kids and suddenly you’re in a class with five kids. They tried to get emergency funding for Postville, and they didn’t get anything. Postville couldn’t even pay its water bills.
But why, one has to ask, did the government want to do this? It was, as you said, the largest single raid of a workplace in U.S. history, and previously undocumented workers with no prior records were not criminally charged after a raid and were typically just deported.
Tory: A couple of years later, they eliminated all of the felonies; they threw then all out, but by that time they had all served time and been deported.
Tory: After 911, there was a new department in Homeland Security, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). They’re getting all this money and they had to justify their numbers. It was a huge organization. If they raid a slaughterhouse, they boost their numbers. … In a slaughterhouse, there’s a line, machinery that you can’t stop. That ended up being a metaphor. There’s this machinery in the government) that you can’t stop. The industrial food chain is like the “food chain” in the government.
But there was more for the writers to draw on. Interpreters were needed during the trial and figure prominently in the larger picture, too.
Tory: A man who was an interpreter during the raid wrote a very controversial essay, printed in the New York Times, about how these immigrants were railroaded by the government, being used as an example. So the essay became a focal point of what we wanted to talk about. The interpreter had to just interpret, but really questioned the morality of what was going on, so he’s the one who looks at these government departments and figures it out.
Cory: That interpretation was a huge jumping off point. The form of the piece is how do you interpret an event? How do you make sense of all this stuff? We’ve taken a very complicated event and tried to keep it complicated. We have three main characters, three languages (Hebrew, Spanish and English) and two of the characters are interpreters.
Tory: We created fictional characters. Steph teaches the slaughterhouse workers English. Her relationship with Julian, the Guatemalan who was her friend is a nexus for a lot of the characters. In 2009 we came up this structure of English lessons, where the character Steph [who was in the Peace Corps] is teaching Julian English. He’s trying to learn how to fit in better. She’s started to learn things about America herself. That was a backbone for us—the arc that you follow emotionally.
There was also a documentary done about one of the deported workers, which helped the writers establish that emotional arc.
Cory – The documentary was set in Guatemala. One of the deported workers had taken out a $7,000 loan. He can only get about five dollars a day in Guatemala and he’s scrambling just to pay the interest. … I felt what we’ve tried to do is focus on the human story. All the political stuff is backdrop.
Creating the piece has been quite deliberately a collaborative process – not just as a writing and directing team, but also with the actors.
Cory: This process has been really collaborative. They were not handed a script. We asked them to do some improvs, and we took the ideas they came up with. They were given a few scenes that we handed them at different points. … In the play, Steph’s dad has a conversation at the end of the play with a British documentary filmmaker. That scene came out in an improv. There have been a lot of scenes getting moved around. … There’s something about creating a play about a political story that kind of works [with this method]. It’s so immediate. You have to craft something that works with the actors in a live space, not something that you crafted in your head. It’s not a play that I would sit down and write. It’s not easy to pull off because the tapestry is so huge, but [because of this process] the tapestry could be huge. We tried to serve the tapestry of the town.
Tory: Our actors have been amazing. We have three that speak Spanish. They translate our scenes on the spot. Everyone in the room contributes. It’s a very different rehearsal process. It’s very much an engaged process. They also all have really good voices, singing songs in Hebrew, in Spanish.
Considered a work in development, audiences will be invited to provide feedback. They will also invite local experts on the events in Postville to participate in the talkbacks.
Tory: Audience talkbacks will be to critique the issues of the play. It’s been great reaching and getting the support of the local Jewish Action Committee and the Guatemalan community. There’s been a lot of interest.
Tory: It illuminates a subject that in many ways we all know – we all know that immigrant labor is a huge force in American business and we all take it for granted. This play points up that there are human costs so that we can get our meat cheap.
Cory: What we want to know is, what did the audience get out of it in terms of the issues? Are you getting the story that we think you should be getting?
Cory: We have to say thank you to Mixed Blood Theater. Jack Reuler [artistic director] got really interested in this topic. The theater was dark, so he invited us to come and do it here.
The production has also been supported by a MAP Fund Grant, a Jerome Foundation residency at the Tofte Lake Center and a workshop at the Playwrights’ Center. It is produced by Wilhelm Bros. & Co.; created by Victoria Stewart, Cory Hinkle, David Wilhelm and Jeremy Wilhelm; and features Pedro Bayon, Thallis Santesteban, Miriam Schwartz, Arusi Santesteban, Terry Hempleman and Stephen Cartmell. It runs through June 23.