En Garde Arts Presents Uncommon Voices

S1 E1 | FULL EPISODE

Pascale Armand & Andrea Thome

This episode features conversations with Tony nominee Pascale Armand about her new work entitled “$#!THOLE COUNTRY CLAPBACK” and playwright Andrea Thome on her current show, “Fandango for Butterflies (and Coyotes).” We dive into the impetus behind writing these tales, and how the characters and story develops from both playwrights’ personal and familial experiences.

AIRED: February 12, 2020 | 0:26:45
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TRANSCRIPT

What I love about live theater is the immediate response

that you get from the audience.

When you hear a... [gasps] or you hear a "mmm".

Even just hearing a sniff, [snaps] you got them.

You know it, you could feel it. You could hear it.

All the senses are just engaged.

As far as developing a piece is concerned,

to get that immediate response, it's priceless.

♪♪

My name is Pascale Armand,

and I am an actor and writer of $#!Thole Country Clapback.

I have worked in television, film, theater,

but mostly theater.

Actually, my Broadway debut

was understudying in "Trip to Bountiful."

But when I was like with a show,

from like the very beginning to the end

and getting it to Broadway, was "Eclipsed."

The play was written by Danai Gurira.

And I played

[ African accent ] Wife Number Three.

[ Normal voice] We'd been doing the show regionally,

like, at the McCarter.

And then we did it at Yale Rep.

That's where we met Lupita Nyong'o.

She was a student when she was understudied.

I was nominated for a Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Play.

I would like to be a winner!

Oh! I'm s-- [ Laughs ]

$#!Thole Country Clapback is the first play I've ever written.

Ever written. I'm so scared.

I am just starting high school. Just finished ninth grade.

And riding the subway on my own, feelin' myself,

and I have to leave to go to Haiti?

It has been an empowering journey for me.

I'm - I'm no longer waiting for that phone call.

I'm doing it.

The play is basically my chronicling my family's journey

of becoming legal citizens in the United States.

This story is very personal.

It talks about people that I love dearly.

And hopefully the audience gets to love them, too.

My writing process was basically,

after I heard the statement, just journal entries.

I-I was just writing fervently.

In a book, you know, at home. And I was just mad.

The President of the United States

is at the center of a storm tonight

over crude and offensive language.

"The News Hour" has opted not to repeat the word in question,

but President Trump was widely quoted

as asking a group of U.S. Senators yesterday,

"Why are we having all these people

from blank-hole countries come here?"

Woman: Senator Dick Durbin, the only Democrat in the room,

insisted the President did ask

why the U.S. would want immigrants from Haiti or Africa,

and did use a derogatory expletive.

I-I-I don't think I'm alone

in thinking that this statement was completely off.

People in my family, they're not [bleep]-hole people.

So I was like I'm dispelling that theory

that the President seems to have put out.

My mom has been so helpful in the development of this piece.

She's basically told me, "Now I know why you're an actor

because your memory, it's something else."

She was like, "There are certain things

that I've forgotten.

I don't even know how you remember any of this stuff."

And I was just kind of like.

The big challenge for Pascale was putting history in story.

Family.

Just information about Haiti and Haiti,

and that's her biggest passion,

to debunk what people don't know.

And she began to just share just the -- uhh --

of what she'd written.

I realized it was her grandmother, it was her story,

and that's where I started to lean in.

Grand-mère is my grandmother.

That's the French word for grandmother.

I was fascinated by her grandmother.

♪♪

When you're an immigrant in America, life is your classroom.

So, besides learning my ABCs, and 123s,

and teaching them to my new sister,

I learn a huge lesson at Waldbaum's supermarket.

Now I am young, which means my sister Kalim

is two years younger.

We're with Grand-mère, and she has to go grocery shopping.

Now, before heading out,

Grand-mère organizes her empty labeled wrappers

and containers of grocery items she intends to replenish.

Grand-mère doesn't speak English,

so she is going to show customer service personnel what she needs

and have them direct her that way.

No need to talk. It's brilliant, actually.

So, she gets her six- and four-year-old granddaughters

ready to go to Waldbaum's.

Sweaters, coats, hats, and scarves, and off we go.

Now, Grand-mère doesn't let us run around the supermarket.

She installs Kalim into the cart,

and I either hitch a ride on the back or walk alongside it.

Now, with the grocery list and wrappers in hand,

Grand-mère goes through each aisle

of the whole supermarket once

looking for the corresponding labels, wrappers,

and containers she brought.

When she sees the grocery items,

she picks up what she needs, places it in the cart,

and discards the matching wrapper.

When we get to the refrigerated dairy section,

Grand-mère makes sure we zip up our coats

and put on our hats and scarves.

Colds come in through exposed heads and chests!

We get the Sunny Delight, eggs,

vitamin-D-enriched whole milk, cheese, and butter.

Grand-mère checks expiration dates,

cracks in the eggshells, and prices.

The cart gets fuller and heavier as we go through each aisle.

By the time we get to the other side of the supermarket,

all of the wrappers are gone from her hand except for one --

a ten-pound bag of Carolina white rice.

Did she miss it? Did they move it?

She thinks she knows this store like the back of her hand.

And then she sees him.

A white man donning a white coat,

clipboard in hand, checking inventory.

Ah! Surely he would know.

She rolls up her cart alongside him,

Carolina rice wrapper in hand.

Excuse me! Excuse me!

Grand-mère. Listen what they did.

Let me help you.

Eh!

Please?

Yes, can I help you?

Oh, aisle 12, bottom left.

What I love about live theater is the immediate response

[ Sighs ]

[ Scoffs ]

You can't speak English, can you?

You're one of those.

What I love about live theater is the immediate response

[ Clicks tongue ]

All right. This way.

Oh, tank you!

What I love about live theater is the immediate response

"One of those?" What does that mean?

A person who eats? A person who feeds her family?

I watch all of this, knowing the answer.

I could have bridged that lingual gap with a simple

"Allée douze en bas á gauche, Grand-mère."

I could have led Grand-mère to the rice, but I didn't.

At six, I didn't have the words to say,

"Mister, why are you talking to her like that?

Do you know who she is?

That's our [ Speaking French ]

What I love about live theater is the immediate response

That's enough. Lesson learned.

From then on, I make it my business

to be Grand-mère's lingual bridge.

At first my family was a little apprehensive about it.

They were just like, why are you trying to air our dirty laundry?

I would remind them of certain things when I would ask them,

I was just like, "Do you remember

when Daddy came home with the machete?"

And my sisters were like, "God, you remember that?"

And I was just like, "Yeah, don't you?"

And, um, we'd flesh things out.

And I was just like, "That's going in."

And they'd be like, "Um..."

The next summer, at home with our parents in Queens,

[bleep] hit the fan.

My father goes out to put gas in the car

while my mother, sisters, and I are at home doing chores.

We hear the biggest slam of a door

that should have taken it off its hinges.

My father comes back from the gas station visibly upset.

He's like a black Bruce Banner

turning into the Incredible Hulk.

You know that part of the transformation

as he's going green when veins in the eyes

start to bulge and everything on his body gets bigger?

That's my dad. He busts through the front door

and beelines for the backyard.

My mom runs after him.

We hear yelling.

My sisters and I are terrified.

When she gets back inside

my father has a machete in a death grip.

She pulls him to the kitchen sink,

turns the faucet on, and pours cold water

on the top of his head and on his face.

His jaw clenches as he breathes through his nostrils.

She gets him to drink some water,

sits him down, and asks him what happened.

Keeping a grip on the machete, he shouts, "I'm a man!

I'm a man! Gas station. Pumping gas.

I am a man! Unh!"

She gently sits in his lap and holds him,

telling him, it'll be all okay, he's home now.

He lets go of the machete and holds her with both hands,

burying his face in her neck, silently crying.

What I love about live theater is the immediate response

I don't know how many strikes this was for him,

but he had reached his limit.

My mother barely stopped him from killing a man.

♪♪

It is very hard to share stuff that is personal.

Um, when I get to explaining about --

describing my uncle's death and my grandmother's death,

and the flight over from -- from the United States to Haiti

to bury her, I've -- for as many times

as I've done it, done the reading,

and this is my fourth time now, that never gets easy.

My voice kind of... all the time.

And I'm trying to get to a point where I can just say it,

but I'm not there yet.

She wanted to be able to deliver that portion of monologue

without being affected so that she could do it without crying.

I basically said the legitimacy,

if someone handed this to you as an actor,

you would let this move through you honestly

every time you had to do it.

This is your work.

You've got to let it move through you.

♪♪

Two poor men who somehow get their hands on weaponry

hold up my uncle's store.

After casing the joint and sticking him up,

they demand Manoug empty the cash register.

As he's doing so, the bandits realize he has a hunting rifle.

The one who goes behind the counter with Manoug

informs his partner that Manoug has a gun,

which all business owners are allowed to have

for situations just like these.

And so comes the order.

[ Speaking native language ]

"He's got a gun? Kill him."

And gwao!

What I love about live theater is the immediate response

Such an easy choice to make.

It makes you wonder, how do his murderers,

in a country that rations electricity,

where a majority of the people take bucket baths,

if they can find clean water to bathe with at all,

where a mode of transportation is a donkey,

where people are starving on so many levels, get guns.

What I love about live theater is the immediate response

My goal for this show is for just people to know more.

Knowledge is power.

Um, I feel that people already know in their heart of hearts

that the statement was wrong.

But, some of them don't know why it's wrong.

I'm hoping to give them the information

that they need for them to --

to come away with not just, "Yeah, we know it's wrong,"

because you just shouldn't say stuff like that.

And hopefully for you to, in the end, go home,

if there's more that you want to know about Haiti,

go home and -- and do some research.

Hey, Google. Google. You know?

Find out more about it so that you become more informed.

Thank you.

[ Cheers and applause ]

Knowledge is power.

♪♪

The script emerged from -- initially from interviews

that I conducted with folks

that are undocumented immigrants.

I interviewed about 12 people,

and some are folks that I've known

for many, many years, some are people I met recently.

And that's the basis of where the initial script began.

♪♪

I'm Andrea Thome, and I'm a playwright.

Born in Madison, Wisconsin. When I was about two months old

we went down to Chile where my mom's from.

And we were there for a few years.

And then there was a military coup and we left.

We came back to Wisconsin.

I went to Harvard.

I said I'm going to create my own major, and I did.

Theater in Latin America is basically what I did,

combining history and theater and looking at how theater

emerges out of historical and social contexts and movements.

And then I went off to start a theater in San Francisco

with friends after college called the Red Rocket Theater.

Basically we had a little space that we rented

in the Mission District.

And in order to pay the rent on this space,

we had to write a play like every two months

we had to put up a play. Every month, every two months.

So, it got to be my turn. I was the only one who hadn't.

They said, "You have to write one."

I was like, "Oh, my God, I have to write one."

I didn't think of myself as a writer.

I was sort of a secret writer. I was, like, private.

We created 22 shows in five years, but I was exhausted.

You know, you're hustling, you're hustling,

you're hustling.

I was like school will be a break.

And so I applied for playwriting at NYU,

and got in, and they gave me a full ride,

and I said I guess I'll go to New York,

and I never left.

The name of my new work is called

"Fandango for Butterflies and Coyotes."

We started it as if

it was going to be a documentary theater piece,

just interviewing people.

The majority of the people are people

who themselves don't have documents,

or at one point didn't.

And I interviewed folks that I know,

people that I've known for many, many years.

And then other folks I didn't know.

You know, meeting new folks. I didn't want it to be something

that we're like coming from the outside

and appropriating other people's stories.

We weren't quite sure what the piece was going to be about yet,

how we were going to shape it.

We were just interested in knowing these people

and sort of hearing their stories.

I think that we all were.

We needed an event. We needed a theatrical event.

So we decided to make it a fandango.

[ Singing in Spanish ]

A fandango is a community gathering, basically.

It could take place anywhere from three hours to three days.

And our collaborator and composer and brilliant musician,

Sinuhé Padilla, he works a lot in the fandango community.

And so in talking to him about what that is,

it felt like it was the right form to take.

There's a dancing that's called a zapateado.

Singing -- It's a way to share news.

It's a way to share things

that have happened to people that week or --

or basically where they came from.

Thome: So there's all of these elements that come into play.

So you have West African percussive rhythms

but sent out through the feet. Elements of old flamenco.

You're calling to Mother Earth in indigenous cultures, right?

You're mirroring. You always have to listen.

You can't dance too loud when the person is doing a verse

because then you can't hear the verse.

So you have to always be in tune with what's happening.

Now this person is going to come in.

You get softer, they get louder.

You're mirroring what they're doing with their feet.

You're mirroring what they're -- so there's a constant act

of really active listening,

and participating, and collaborating.

And that, to me, is a model for society

for how we should live.

And it's taking on its own new life

because we're creating more of a theatrical event.

♪♪

So, we started working on that. And I think the first thing

we did was create an hour-long version

where we took six other voices

and just had them tell us their stories, interweave.

We just spent time in the room with them

with little musical accompaniment.

So, it became a radio play almost.

And it was a way to really get to know who these people were.

Characters have come to this gathering,

and they're all immigrants in some ways.

Mostly undocumented. Not all, but they're --

they're coming together, forming community, and sharing stories.

We are there with them on that evening,

on an evening where there is --

potentially there's an ICE raid happening.

And so everybody is nervous about that.

They are in a sanctuary space, so they feel protected.

And it's about what happens sort of

as they people are struggling with these issues.

♪♪

♪♪

I see myself with a little red T-shirt that I brought.

Some jeans. A gray sweatshirt that a friend had given me

because, she said, "it's cold. You can't go like that."

You couldn't bring anything. Nothing. Nothing.

I remember that my mother only gave me a thread.

One of those threads with the Virgin.

And a tiny butterfly she drew.

She didn't want me to bring a chain,

so I wouldn't call attention.

And, she says, "It'll protect you."

I remember I felt so much fear. And so deep.

The first time I crossed, to be honest,

well, when I called my family I felt like crying.

See, I had never left Honduras before,

and I said, "What did I come here for?

Like, what did I come here for?"

It would have been better to stay there even if I was poor.

And that was just in Guatemala. Imagine.

In Guatemala, I felt like a stranger

for having left my country.

There have always been immigrant stories and characters

in my writing and in my life. In my people.

In the people I love. In - In my families.

Mariposa is -- She's a woman who's about 35.

She manages a deli.

And she's like the anchor person.

And she has convened this fandango

and his hosting it in this space

in this community center in a church.

And she's kind of organized the whole thing.

This is an image that comes from

the woman I interviewed who's inspired her,

this character. And she told me once, you know,

"I think about, when I'm feeling desperate,

she said, I think about the spider.

And I think about the spider, what catches a spider

when she falls, right?

How does she know where -- how does she land?"

And she said she sends out this thread,

this silk thread, and -- and it goes into the air,

and the air picks it up, and it kind of carries her,

because of that thread, it carries her along.

And she just hopes that that thread will somehow anchor

on something and it will catch her.

And we're all doing this.

We're sending this thread into the air.

We don't know if it's going to catch anywhere.

If we don't even reach out, if we don't, like,

send that out, we'll just fall to the ground.

But when you're dealing with fear,

when you're dealing with a system that's trying

to dehumanize you, or doesn't even see you,

how do we create that hope?

It's like three days walking. In the desert.

So everything you see, in the movies, on TV, it's true.

And you walk in the desert in the dark.

You don't know if you're on the hill,

if you're on the mountain.

There's not a single light.

And you don't know if you'll get to your destination or not.

The moon is really bright. It isn't that dark.

What if I get left behind in the desert?

I don't know if I can walk like that.

Will I be able to?

Mariposa: Two days in, they rob us. They take our money.

The rateros who, they call them the cholos,

they know that people pass through there.

They wait for them there to take their money.

I'm looking at the moon when suddenly we hear people coming.

In my town we heard stories.

I'm like, what's going to happen?

What will they do to us?

I close my eyes and I can see how they seated us.

There was a lot of sand, dirt.

The men robbing us holding weapons.

Kicking us in the back.

But they didn't do anything to me.

They get closer. And they say, "No, no, no, no.

We haven't come to hurt you." They're, I think,

soldiers or something, just looking for drugs.

They don't go around arresting people who are just crossing.

In Mexico, there's a lot of military. Lots of police.

More than anything, they want money. Money.

One lady takes off her wedding ring.

She puts it in her mouth. But the man sees her.

And he makes her spit out the ring

she didn't want to lose. I'll never forget that.

He kicked her in the back so that he could get it out.

What's happening now with immigration

in this country is not new.

You know, back in the '90s when I was in San Francisco,

Proposition 187 was passed in California.

That was a proposition to basically deny many services

to folks that are undocumented.

This has been around -- this has been happening,

and under Obama there was a huge amount of deportations as well.

That's not new.

This I'll never forget.

I lay down on the ground. I close my eyes.

And all I wanted was to get to this country to meet my nephew.

Because there was a baby in the family.

I think I've never talked about it,

but he was my motivation.

I mean, I knew I wanted a better future for myself.

Stability for my mother so that she wouldn't suffer.

But, when I was there, in that moment,

the only thing that went through my mind was my nephew.

When I get there, I will see my baby.

They put a ladder up on our side of the wall.

And then we had to jump to the other side.

And it was like 15 or 14 feet high.

So my sister got on quickly and jumped,

and then my brother, well he let go, too.

And I was last. I was -- I was hanging there.

[ Laughs ] I remember the feeling exactly.

I was lying there on that ground,

and it was so cold.

And the sound of the crickets. And I remember I said, "But,

well, I'm going to get there.

I have a lot of faith." I had a lot of faith.

And finally I had to let go because my hands got tired.

And I fell to the bottom.

And we started to crawl. Just us.

We didn't have a coyote, nothing.

We didn't see police.

Together: We jumped. We crawled.

We saw a rabbit that crossed in front of us.

So many rabbits.

We kept crawling, and kept crawling.

Till we weren't in the grass any more.

And then we stood up like normal people.

And some people were looking at us from inside their house.

And we threw off our jackets, and the dog started to bark,

but we kept walking like...

Together: ...normal people.

And they had told us to get to 14th Street

and there would be a white car. And there was the car.

And we said the code, and they stuck us inside.

And from there they took us to Tucson, Arizona.

Victoria, Texas.

-Houston. -Houston.

Los Angeles.

Until there were enough people to bring us here.

When your family sends the rest of the money,

they send you to whatever state you say you're going to.

Riding under people's feet.

On the passenger side in a tight space,

all scrunched up.

However you end up, that's how you'll stay.

When they step on you, you can't move.

The thing is that everyone has to fit.

Nine hours. 10. 12. 16.

I tell myself, "I know I'm going to get there."

I'm going to get there. I'm going to see that baby.

And I'm going to hug my nephew.

And I'll get to go to school again.

I'll get my first paycheck.

And I'll build my parents a house.

And I'll finally be safe.

Yes.

Together: Very soon, I will get there.

What I love about live theater is the immediate response

I hope that people hear those stories.

I hope people take them in.

There's also a lot of things you can do.

Accompany immigrants on their check-ins with ICE.

And just being there and being a witness to what it --

like a judge seeing you there as a witness for someone,

that's really powerful. You don't have to be an expert.

You don't even have to speak Spanish or whatever language.

People from all over the world are in this situation.

But, just I think that I want people to see that they can --

there is a lot they can do. And one of those things is

understanding, and listening, and building together.

And I think when you make a fandango together, you do.

You know, it's like art as a -- art is a rehearsal for life.

It's like a model of life, of society.

Maybe we can all practice doing that a little.

[ Cheering ]

♪♪

[ Singing in Spanish ]

♪♪

[ Singing continues ]

♪♪

What I love about live theater is the immediate response

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