“The Courtroom” delivers an unflinching look at Elizabeth Keathley’s immigration nightmare

“The Courtroom” delivers an unflinching look at Elizabeth Keathley’s immigration nightmare

In 2006, several decades before he co-founded Waterwell, a New York theater company, Arian Moayed found himself in a ceremonial courthouse in Chicago. Born in Iran, Moayed was brought at age six to this country by his parents and now, twenty years later, he was reciting the oath of citizenship, declaring fealty to the United States of America.

“I remember vividly crying,” recalls the actor, Tony-nominated for “The Humans.” The tears came, he adds, from “… the relief of knowing that the fear of being deported was off my back. Every immigrant goes through that fear. It’s impossible not to because the paperwork is heavy, the laws are confusing and tricky, and the language is always a barrier.”

"The Courtroom." Photo: Maria Baranova.
“The Courtroom.” Photo: Maria Baranova.

Waterwell, which is described as a “civic-minded” company, is currently tapping into that fear and its concomitant high stakes in “The Courtroom,” a re-enactment of the real-life case of Elizabeth Keathley, a Filipina immigrant and Illinois resident who was threatened with deportation after she illegally voted in the 2006 congressional elections. After marrying John Keathley, an American citizen, Elizabeth had applied for a state ID at a local DMV. In the process, an official there asked her if she also wanted to register to vote. She unwittingly replied, “Yes.” Her response sent her into a Kafkaesque maze of judicial inquiry that lasted six years and ultimately led to a judgment in the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

The production, derived from trial transcripts edited by Moayed and directed by Lee Sunday Evans, is playing one performance each month at a site-specific venue through the 2020 elections. Having played at the Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse and Judson Memorial Church, “The Courtroom,” with its revolving cast of actors, moves to the West Park Presbyterian Church in Manhattan on Nov. 21 followed by a run at The Cooper Union on Dec. 9.

“We chose this case because it’s a representation of the many intersecting factors of a complicated and flawed immigration system, “ says Evans. She adds that the work is non-ideological. The transcripts show respect for both sides of the argument, those enforcing Elizabeth’s deportation and those defending her against it. “We have enormous respect for the immigration judges, the [Department of Homeland Security] lawyers and the defense lawyers who are working very hard to ensure the process is fair and upholds our values, ” she says. “The case interacts with the high stakes of this cultural and political moment, with our identity as a country and the text has an electricity because of it.”

"The Courtroom." Photo: Maria Baranova.
“The Courtroom.” Photo: Maria Baranova.

The text is presented in a “non-theatrical” manner. The audience sits as though in the sterile environs of a courtroom. There is no dimming of the lights, no ushers. The actors, who have very little rehearsal, read directly from the transcripts. The goal, says, Moayed, is to place the audience in the shoes of Elizabeth, a young wife and mother, who commands only a passable amount of English to answer the questions fired at her from judges and lawyers alike. She has an invaluable ally in her personal lawyer, Richard Hanus — a luxury afforded to few immigrants facing the same perils.

“Lee and I felt that the truth of what was happening in the transcripts is so much more powerful than trying to theatricalize what we understand courtrooms to be,” says Moayed. “We wanted the audience to truly have the sense of a re-enactment that is as messy, nerve-racking and scary for them as it is for the people who are undergoing it. It’s raw, suspenseful and voyeuristic.”

Kristin Villanueva, the young actor who plays Elizabeth and is herself an émigré from the Philippines, says the whole experience has been unnerving. “I don’t like doing it,” she admits candidly. “It takes such an emotional toll, more than any other play I’ve ever done.” Having come to this country as a teen, she says that she can understand better than most the vulnerability inflicted on immigrants even when everything is in order. She recalls that the first time she applied for unemployment benefits, she worried that it might compromise her green card status.

Villanueva further notes that assuming a thick accent for the play, not unlike the speech of her mother, “messed with her head” and interfered with her memorization of the text. “It was all about the insecurity of not being understood or able to express yourself, the fear that people will consider you dumb,” she says.

"The Courtroom." Photo: Maria Baranova.
“The Courtroom.” Photo: Maria Baranova.

Since it deals with a case that began during the George W. Bush administration and continued through the Obama years, “The Courtroom” offers a perspective different from today’s headlines, which seem to be more preoccupied with immigrant bashing, refugees fleeing civil war, gang unrest and the tragic drama of family separations at the border. The value of Elizabeth’s case, says Kathleen Chalfant, who plays one of the judges, lay in the fact that it involves a couple facing draconian penalties for a misstep caused, to a large extent, by a government official. Not only was Elizabeth, who had a young child and an older stepdaughter, threatened with being sent back to the Philippines, she was also not allowed to work for several years while the case was being adjudicated.

“It’s easy to see how this can happen to regular people who are just trying to follow the law,” says Chalfant. “It demonstrates just how complicated and, in some cases, just how supple the legal system can be. It’s a life-and-death situation for these people, and you realize how much context and specification needs to be applied to each case.”

In that regard, the veteran actor gives a tip of the hat to Hanus, who was persistent in his pursuit of justice. While he was paid for the first trial, he took on the appeals pro bono. “It’s a very heartening story because he just doesn’t stop,” she explains. “He just says, ‘This is not just, this is not right.’ He is appealing to the judges’ sense of fairness.”

“The Courtroom” is not timid about getting into the granular details of the case — something audiences have been able to absorb, says Moayed, precisely because of our current cultural moment. “We have found they can follow the legal arguments quite well,” he says. “It’s a testament to the actors, lawyers and judges involved. Given what we are dealing with in the country right now, we want to come and see how our immigration system works. What does it mean to be an educated citizen and what is the day-to-day impact our immigration policies have on the most vulnerable in society?”

The relevance of the Keathleys to this country’s contemporary situation is considerable, says Brian d’Arcy James, who has also played one of the judges in “The Courtroom.” For him, the meting out of justice is personal. His father was a trial lawyer and his grandfather was a Michigan Supreme Court justice.

“I have equal respect for both sides of the law,” he says. “What is frustrating is what Hamlet calls ‘the law’s delay,’ just how long these cases can take and the toll it takes on the people. And the backlog is devastating. On the other hand, you see people like Richard Hanus dedicating themselves to representing people in these situations. And that’s inspiring. My father and grandfather loved what they did, doing what they could for justice to prevail. It doesn’t always work out that way. But to a large extent, the play is a love letter to the law. And it sure has opened my eyes to a lot of the process.”

Top Image: "The Courtroom." Photos by Maria Baranova.