SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The last week of January will see the South Orange Performing Arts Center stage “A Good Farmer,” a play that explores the contributions of undocumented immigrants to the communities in which they live. From Jan. 24 until Feb. 4, the play will tell the story of a farm in upstate New York and what the owner and farmhand face when the worker’s legal status is questioned. Highlighting the small farming community, the audience will question immigration issues, loyalty and what it takes for a family to survive.
Sharyn Rothstein wrote the play 10 years ago after reading a New York Times article about how immigration was affecting a small farming town in New York, where she set the show.
“I became interested in what it does to the town when so much of what you do relies on immigration,” Rothstein said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Jan. 11. “It was this story about these two women and the political climate, and all of these problems that we still have to figure out.”
Rothstein said that as she was writing the play, the thought was in the back of her mind that it was a “period piece,” and that the issue of illegal immigration and immigration in general would not be relevant for much longer.
“I was wrong,” she said. “Almost nothing had to change. It isn’t intended to be a response to anything (currently happening in the country). It’s an investigation into the people and the challenges that those people face. Nothing has changed; all of those questions are still there. If anything, it feels more relevant today.”
Jim Vaigas, the producing director of the SOPAC production, agreed.
“She could have written the play this morning,” he said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Jan. 11. “It’s as relevant as ever. But it’s not a political play, it’s about people.”
The play’s four-person cast plays more than four roles in the show. While Janice Amaya and Ariel Woodiwiss each play only one character apiece, Brenda Withers and Todd Lawson each take on three roles. According to director Kel Haney, the cast is able to create an ensemble without many actors. When the immigration status of the farmhand, Carla, is threatened, Bonnie, the farm’s owner, must find a way to keep the farm going.
“It’s a relationship between women,” Haney said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Jan. 12 about what made her want to direct the play. “That’s what was at the core, and how does that change with circumstances? That felt like a story that needed to be told as this time.”
Haney sent the script to Vaigas, with whom she had previously worked.
“She had actually sent it to me and asked what I thought about it,” Vaigas said. “I knew I wanted to do it. When I finished reading it I had a tear in my eye.”
While reading the play impacted Vaigas, watching it come to life has been even more significant.
“They breathe life into what’s on the page, they make it real,” he said of the cast. “It’s one thing to read it on the page. But when I was watching one scene in rehearsal, I wanted to scream. It makes a difference.”
To bring Rothstein’s words to life, Haney said she pays attention to current events and keeps them in mind at rehearsals. She said she wants to be sure the play balances emotional impact and humor.
“I’m reading headlines and staying engaged,” she said. “It’s right there in front of me at breakfast. There was something similar that happened in Alabama, and it’s with us in rehearsal every day. This is one of the deepest emotional plays that I’ve worked on but also one of the funniest.”
Vaigas also touched on the funny moments of the play when he spoke about it, saying that while it’s an emotional piece of theater, there are lighter, more fun scenes.
“I don’t think the play hits you over the head with a message,” he said. “Humanity has its funny moments. We laugh, but there are really beautiful moments. It shows there are people in these stories who care about their families.”
According to Haney, she does not want the play to promote one viewpoint over another, but just to make the audience confront these issues.
“I want them to come away more connected to their humanity,” Haney said. “I want them to be able to talk about these things.”
That was Rothstein’s goal when writing the script. She wants audience members to be able to think about what the play, and to discuss immigration too.
“I want it to answer the questions of, how can we best serve and remember our humanity with illegal immigration?” Rothstein said. “They’re not questions I have the answers to. When you humanize it, you make it personal and emotional and able to be discussed. I hope people are touched and it starts a dialogue about what system is fair and human, and they’re ready and willing to talk about it.”
Photos Courtesy of Dee Billia