Art News

The Medicine in the Story: Motus Theater Marks the Tenth Anniversary of DACA

Kirsten Wilson, superimposed over a Motus performance.
Kirsten Wilson, superimposed over a Motus performance. YouTube
Motus Theater won our 2022 Best of Denver award for Best Theater Company Programming this year for its engaging work showcasing critical social and political issues, and it's still going strong with its latest original piece. UndocuAmerica Monologues: 10 Years of DACA in Story and Song, will be live on stage on Saturday, June 11, at the Dairy Arts Center in Boulder.

The nonprofit's two performances on Saturday — the first in Spanish at 3 p.m., and the second in English at 6 p.m. — mark the tenth anniversary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) with poignant and powerful personal stories told through monologues, poetry, music and visual art. Both performances are free and open to the public in recognition of Immigrant Heritage Month, and only require online registration to reserve tickets.

"Storytelling is the way we share our humanity with each other," says Motus founder Kirsten Wilson. "Every person's story is a parable. It's a very densely woven experience of the meaning of what it is to be a human being. There are certain stories that are not shared — that are suppressed — because if they were shared, they would disrupt abusive flows of power."

Wilson emphasizes the importance of strategically spotlighting those suppressed narratives and having them shared widely in the media. "If you're allowed to break the world into just good and bad...to simplify the story, then it's really easy to justify dehumanizing practices," she says. "You're not murdering people indigenous to the land; you're killing 'savages.'" We have to "flip that switch back" to "rediscover our common humanity."

"The medicine is in the story," she adds.
DACA began in 2012 to provide a two-year period of deferred deportation, a work permit and increased opportunity for higher education for children brought to the U.S. without documentation. Motus Theater has worked closely with DACA recipients to spotlight the personal experience of people impacted by U.S. immigration policy, emphasizing "thoughtful reflection on DACA and the families who are caught in the crosshairs of U.S. immigration policy," according to a press release.

"The stories we hold close to our heart are the ones that impact the way we vote, the way we engage in the community, the actions we take. The undocumented community is woven throughout. One in eleven students in Colorado lives with an undocumented family member," Wilson says, pointing out that this isn't just a small slice of the state's population. She adds that the media too often misses undocumented immigrants' stories, or only addresses them through a narrow frame.

"Victim or criminal," Wilson says, "is how, unfortunately, the undocumented community gets reduced."

Armando Peniche is working to ensure that these stories get out to the public at large — including his own. He's not only the partnerships and project manager at Motus; he's also one of the performers who talks about his undocumented past. Peniche first told his story on camera for the short documentary film No One Shall Be Called Illegal, which premiered at the 2011 Denver Film Festival. He recalls his first experience working with Motus, in monologue workshops led by Wilson back in 2017.

"In the middle of the workshop, I was crying my eyes out," Peniche recalls. "I couldn't hold my emotions, because I was in a safe place, safe with other people who'd been through similar experiences. I was uncovering old wounds, opening up old scars, things I'd never told anyone." That sense of safety, Peniche says, leads to sharing, which then leads to healing.

The roots of that healing go back to where Motus began in 2009, when Wilson crafted a performance as part of her artist residency at CU for the Boulder Sesquicentennial. She says the performance was about "Boulder history through the lens of race and class."

"A Latino leader in the community, Daniel Escalante, was at that performance," Wilson recalls, "and said he wished we could bring it back with a community conversation." Escalante reasoned that if the surrounding community really understood its true history, there might be fewer obstacles when pushing for empowerment and education. Wilson and Escalante decided to partner up to do just that.

"But it became such a big vision," says Wilson, "that we decided we needed a nonprofit to hold that level of community conversation."

In the years since, Motus has become known nationally for its collaborations with law enforcement and civic, political, religious and education leaders who stand in the shoes of undocumented people by reading their stories aloud on stage or as part of Motus’s Shoebox Stories podcast. Notable participants include Neil Young, Yo-Yo Ma, Police Chief Art Acevedo, actor John Lithgow, World Central Kitchen founder José Andrés, Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, feminist icon Gloria Steinem, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, former New York Times op-ed writer Nicholas Kristof, Latino USA founder Maria Hinojosa and many others.

Segments of the UndocuAmerica performance will be shared with the general public in several other media, including a collaboration with Colorado Public Radio, which will broadcast six of the UndocuAmerica stories. The performance will be streamed to the nation on June 15 from Rocky Mountain PBS's YouTube channel (registration for that streaming link can be found here). In addition, a dozen murals — six planned for Denver and six in Boulder — are being created by Edica Pacha with embedded QR codes linking directly to videos of the monologues in both English and Spanish.

For additional information on either Motus Theater or the UndocuAmerica project, check out the Motus Theater website.
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Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.
Contact: Teague Bohlen