Hartzler, an immigration lawyer/playwright in Arizona

The New York Times ArtsBeat invites Kara Hartzler to write about the Arizona Immigration Law SB1070 and her play Arizona: No Roosters in the Desert, based on immigrant women who have been deported. She discusses artistic honesty and political debates from the standpoint of an American artist/activist. Along with being a playwright, Hartzler is an immigration lawyer and is the legal director/criminal immigration consultant of the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project.

Especially worthwhile to understanding the complexity and horror of the U.S. immigration debacle are the comments to her article especially those who believe that the illegal immigrant issue is “truly nonsense” (Comment #14) and those who favor a formal “Declaration of War on Mexico and the placement of the army on the border with orders to shoot on sight and to shoot to kill” (Comment #18).

New York Times ArtsBeat
Theater Talkback: Arizona, Immigration and Outrage
By Kara Hartzler

If you have strong feelings on the new Arizona immigration law, it’s likely you fall into one of two camps. Camp No. 1 denounces the fascist Arizona legislators who want to drive out those humble, oppressed dishwashers and gardeners and turn the country into a white-power police state. Camp No. 2 bemoans the current state of lawlessness in which Mexican drug lords terrorize the border while their illegal minions suck jobs and social services from hard-working Americans.

As a lawyer at a nonprofit immigrant-rights organization in Arizona, I’ve long since thrown my lot in with Camp No. 1. But as a playwright, here’s the dark secret I won’t be yelling into a megaphone at an immigrant-rights rally anytime soon:

Both camps kind of bore me.

Their rhetoric is simplistic and unoriginal. Their characters are one-dimensional. Their tone is always the same shrill pitch. It’s just so predictable and clichéd.

I blame theater for my impatience. If there’s one thing an M.F.A. taught me, it’s to write against the grain. Make the good guy flawed. Make the bad guy redeemable. Turn the victim into the perpetrator. See if you can justify evil. Above all, seek out human complexity.

But sometimes I wonder whether this artistic training dampens my political outrage. When a law as mean-spirited as SB 1070 comes along, it demands an immediate and unequivocal outcry. As an attorney, I can rail against the injustice of a shameful and egregious anti-immigrant movement with no ethical qualms.

But as a playwright, I feel a gnawing responsibility to examine the multifarious natures of Arizona legislators and immigrants alike. To make the humble gardener racist. To make the white supremacist noble. To shake up our expectations about the characters in this national play.

Recently I was commissioned to write a script based on a series of interviews with immigrant women who were deported while crossing the desert. I started out with the goal that all good playwrights should have: not to bore myself.

I didn’t want to write the evil-government-versus-hapless-victim play. I wanted to explore class and racial tension between the women themselves, probe the disloyalty they felt toward one another and their homelands, and explore the dark humor that arises out of desperate situations. But after a reading, an audience member asked me, “Where’s your outrage?”

As I write, Arizona is in turmoil. A federal judge has enjoined key provisions of the law. Legal observers are being targeted and arrested. Protesters are taking over intersections. From my office in the middle of the desert, I hear bombs and machine-gun-fire daily; the National Guard is training nearby.

But what really grabs me, what I can’t stop thinking about, is the guy I talked to in the detention center one recent morning. He’s panicking because he doesn’t know how he’s going to return his rental videos before he gets deported. That’s the scene I want to write: not “what if my civil rights are violated?” but “what if I can’t get my kid’s ‘Alvin and the Chipmunks’ DVD back to Blockbuster before I’m sent to Mexico?”

Ultimately, I don’t know whether my need for artistic honesty will compromise a hard-line political stance against laws such as SB 1070. Obviously people have successfully used theater as a radical, uncompromising call-to-arms for thousands of years, and one can certainly explore the complexity of human nature while simultaneously opposing discrimination.

But to all those who consider themselves both artists and activists, it’s a question worth posing: does our commitment to creative nuance ever complicate our ability to oppose injustice?

Kara Hartzler earned her M.F.A. at the University of Iowa Playwrights Workshop and is currently the legal director of the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project in Arizona. Her play “Arizona: No Roosters in the Desert” opened this month at El Círculo Teatral in Mexico City as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere that includes productions at Borderlands Theater in Tucson in October and Prop Thtr in Chicago in the spring of 2011.

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

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