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U-M professor's play inspired by deadly incident on Mexican border

By Sydney Hawkins

The tragic death of immigrants on the border inspired a play by U-M professor Jose Casas.


In May of 2001, José Casas remembers watching a news broadcast detailing a tragic incident near Yuma, Ariz., where smugglers abandoned 30 Mexicans who were crossing the desert.

Jose Casas, U-M assistant professor of theatre and drama.

Jose Casas, U-M assistant professor of theatre and drama.

Of those 30 people, 14 died of dehydration.

In response, Casas, U-M assistant professor of theatre and drama and award-winning playwright, wrote “14,” a play based on interviews and public accounts of Arizonans and their different attitudes toward the contemporary issues of undocumented immigration at the time.

It will be presented by the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance’s Department of Theatre & Drama at 7 p.m. Feb. 22 at U-M’s Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre. A talkback with the cast and community members will immediately follow. The performance is free to the public, but seats are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Q: Can you talk about creating “14” and where you were at in your life when you wrote it?

Casas: I originally wrote this play about 15 years ago when I was attending graduate school at Arizona State University. I was inspired by an incident where 14 Mexican nationals died in the desert near Yuma, Arizona. I remember the newscast showing a helicopter aerial view where you could see all of the bodies on the ground—and I remember thinking that those people could be my father or my cousin or one of my friends. My reaction was this play, which is made up of 14 fictionalized monologues that represent different peoples’ perspectives on issues of immigration, race and public policy related to the border.

Q: Can you talk about some of the characters represented in the monologues?

Casas: Each monologue is based on real events and a combination of public records and interviews that I conducted with real people. Some of them are angry and some of them are sad. There’s one about a preacher who puts up water stations in the Arizona desert so that people don’t die. He tells a story about a father who had to identify his daughter’s body by a necklace that she received for her 15th birthday. There’s one about a day laborer at Home Depot who wants to be able to afford to get his daughter a real doll, so he starts talking about Barbies. There’s another about a woman who works as a maid and talks about La Virgen de Guadalupe, which is the Mexican version of the Virgin Mary. Her monologue is completely in Spanish.

Q: How much of the play is presented in Spanish?

The tragic death of immigrants on the border inspired a play by U-M professor Jose Casas.

The tragic death of immigrants on the border inspired a play by U-M professor Jose Casas.

Casas: Two of the 14 monologues are completely in Spanish and are not translated at all; it’s actually part of the play. Because when we’re dealing with race in America—specifically the Latino community—language is always going to be a factor. For some people, language represents a fear for them. In Arizona, they’re trying to ban ethnic studies at every level, including speaking Spanish in classrooms. So you cannot represent all angles of this situation unless you include the people that don’t speak English, but are contributing to this country anyway. The hope is that the people who can’t understand Spanish will be able to read other cues and try to figure out what is being said. It also creates a great conversation for the talkback with the cast and audience members after the show as well.

Q: What are some of the challenges in writing this kind of work?

Casas: When you’re doing interview-based theater, finding a diverse group of people willing to talk about the subject matter is always the most difficult part. I tried to make it as complex as possible—to show many different angles of the issue. I never want my work to come across one-sided.

Q: Your play has been performed many times since you first wrote it almost 15 years ago. Has anything changed since then?

Casas: Unfortunately, it seems even more relevant today than it was 15 years ago. In my opinion, the situation has gotten worse. The current administration has created an atmosphere of conflict surrounding the border and immigration, and I personally feel we have a president who is actively endorsing racism. The same problems persisting back then are still not being solved today, which is why I think that presenting and creating artistic work about this subject matter is so important.

Q: Is there anything you’re working on right now?

Casas: I’m an issue-based playwright, so my work is usually about incidents or things that are happening in the world that I’m passionate about responding to. I’m currently working on a play about the Flint water crisis that is going to be produced next year by U-M’s theater program.

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