Angelina Orellana steps forward toward the empty seats in the Marsh Studio Theater and looks out to where the audience will sit.
“Claro, we call ourselves dreamers,” Orellana says. “We got to get loud. It’s the quiet ones that they pick on.”
Director Cliff Mayotte cuts the scene there and turns to the five actors on the stage. “What inspires you to say that?” he says.
Mayotte is challenging his actors — some new immigrants, some born in the United States, some undocumented — to discover and embody the emotions of the undocumented teenagers they will portray in “In and Out of Shadow,” a new play that will have two school performances Feb. 1 before officially premiering on Feb. 2 at the Marsh Studio Theater.
“I’m asking them questions to get them thinking, ‘What is my character feeling? What is my character thinking? What is important to them?’” Mayotte says.
For some, the emotions come naturally.
The play centers around the true life stories of undocumented teenagers — some of whom, like Homero Rosas, 17, will be acting in the play.
Rosas came to San Francisco from Mexico when he was 6 years old. He learned English and started to excel in school. The summer before he started high school, he discovered acting at the Marsh.
At the recommendation of Emily Klion, program director at the Marsh Youth Theater, Rosas applied for an internship when he was 15. He got the job, but couldn’t take it. It required that he have a Social Security number.
“My parents would tell me I wasn’t from here, but up until then I didn’t know what that meant,” Rosas says. “I didn’t know it meant I couldn’t get financial aid, I couldn’t get a job, I couldn’t aspire to anything, really. I felt trapped.”
But with help, Rosas learned about internships that didn’t require documentation. He also learned about AB 540, a California law that allows undocumented students to attend college and pay in-state tuition. Now he’s excited to graduate from high school, attend college and pursue acting.
He will tell his story through his character, “Juan,” a high-achieving undocumented student who feels trapped by his immigration status and needs help to discover that opportunities are still out there for him.
“It’s really fun because in a way I feel like my character is me,” Rosas says. “I get to tell people, through acting, how I feel.”
The play has taken two years to come to fruition. After Klion had the idea for a play on undocumented youth, the staff and youth actors at the Marsh went out into communities and compiled oral histories of undocumented youth in the Bay Area.
The play’s writer, Gary Soto, a well-known Chicano author and poet, read over 200 pages of true stories and experiences from undocumented youth. As he read, phrases or stories would strike him and become the inspiration for the play’s characters and storyline.
“You’ll get a sense in the play that we have very fine young people caught in a situation they are not responsible for,” Soto says. “These young people have the strength to take themselves seriously and change policy by being vocal.”
The plight of undocumented immigrants has disappeared from the headlines since President Obama announced his deferred action policy this summer, but the community needs to be reminded that these young people are still fighting and struggling, Soto says.
“My goal is to make sure the audience is changed, even in the slightest,” Rosas says. “I’m hoping for them to open up their minds even a little bit more.”
Along the way, the play is also changing the perspectives of its actors.
Alondra Duarte-Ferman, 15, plays Paola, a 16-year-old Guatemalan student, who Duarte-Ferman says is a nerd just like her. Duarte-Ferman is Salvadoran but was born in the United States. Paola is undocumented.
“My character and I are similar, except she can’t get a driver’s license and she can’t apply to jobs,” Duarte-Ferman says. “I think about what it would be like if my character had papers and could do those things that I have the opportunity to do. It makes me appreciate everything a little more.”
Atlai Moreno, 16, has only been in the United States for a year and this will be his first play at the Marsh. The International High School student plays various roles, including an immigration officer and a churro vendor. Moreno, who grew up in Mexico, is documented. But he has friends, who are not so different from him, who have no documentation.
“I hope this play will send the message that everyone has a right to dream, even if you’re an immigrant,” Moreno says.
Performance dates and tickets are available here.