Luca La Hoz Calassara and Ayssette Muñoz play brother and sister Jesús and Gabi in Carlos Murillo’s I Come from Arizona, which makes its world premiere at the Children’s Theatre Co.
Photo by Dan Norman
Children’s Theatre Co.’s newest world premiere I Come from Arizona strings together ordinary life in many ways. Fourteen-year-old Gabi begins attending a new school and tries to find her place; she has to pick her brother up from school; she argues with her mom. It is, as the play’s Chicago-based writer, Carlos Murillo says, a time where people are both children and adults, teetering between the known and the anxiety of the unknown. This is the time when you discover your parents aren’t the superheroes you thought they were and when you really begin to understand your family and its history.
For all of this and more, growing up can be really difficult, and I Come from Arizona captures that. For Gabi, though, a big part of her growing pains is realizing that she is the daughter of undocumented Mexican immigrants.
You can see I Come from Arizona at the Children’s Theatre from Oct. 9 through Nov. 25, but those who have been following Murillo may remember a slightly different version of the story that premiered in 2013 at Adventure Stage in Chicago called Augusta and Noble, which was created after interviewing people in the Chicago Latino community. I Come from Arizona is adapted from this script, but while certain aspects are the same, one of the changes that the Children’s Theatre and Murillo worked on was making the relationship Gabi and her mother the heart of the play.
“It’s a conversation about immigration but through the lens that any parent or a teenager could resonate with regardless of cultural background,” Murillo says. “You’re seeing a particular threat and dealing with that on a day-to-day basis … [and] looking at it through a lens that’s quite familiar.”
The topic of immigration may be urgent, and it may be heavy, but it is portrayed in a way that everyone can understand. Ayssette Muñoz, who plays Gabi, loves the way Murillo shows the audience the hidden turmoils of Gabi’s world so that they can see how they affect the rest of her life and the relationships with people who don’t know her secrets.
Other moments bring internal feelings to light, too. A knock on the door, for instance, isn’t just a neighbor saying hello. It’s a moment of panic and fear that the person behind it could take away someone you love. Muñoz lived in a border town growing up, and one of her caretakers had to grapple with that real possibility, and even now, as she runs through the play, that passed on fear still kicks in during those scenes when Gabi also experiences a knock at the door.
The audience experiences all of this with Gabi, and so they also experience when she clashes with her classmate Fiona (Madison Neal) who just doesn’t seem to understand how Gabi’s life can be different than hers. Looking at a mere description of her personality, it can be easy to put her to the side as a simple counterpoint for Murillo to launch his arguments from or as the mean girl who needs to be taught a lesson. However, like everything in the play, it would be a mistake to simplify her like that.
“It’s really easy to vilify a character, right?” Muñoz says. “And it’s the same argument [you can use when you talk about immigration] where it’s like you don’t know what are other people are going through, and sometimes it’s easy to put up that wall.” It is only by a willingness from both sides to make an effort to understand each other that they can come together again.
“I think telling stories, particularly about young people,” Murillo says, “is having a place where we can have a conversation that isn’t about yelling or ideology but really sort of humanizes—who doesn’t want their kid to be successful? Who doesn’t want the best for their child? I think that’s why we come to the theater, to find that sort of note from empathy to see the world outside of our own and digging in.”
It is undeniable that the premise of I Come from Arizona hints of lessons to be learned or, if nothing else, a call for understanding around immigration. Whether you agree with the messages it seems to present to you or not, the thing to remember is that this premise is someone’s life.