Observers often describe the “DACA debacle” as political football. Many are content to sit back and spectate heartless immigration politics from afar. But in “WET: A DACAmented Journey,” actor Alex Alpharaoh calls audiences down from the nosebleeds and into the action.
Telling the true story of Alpharaoh’s life as an undocumented immigrant living in Los Angeles, the play focuses on the five years following President Barack Obama’s introduction of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) as executive policy. One of the nation’s 800,000 DREAMers, Alpharaoh was granted deferral from deportation under the Obama-era order.
It’s an intimate exploration of bureaucracy, family and what it means to be an American.
“I’m an American in all the ways that matter,” Alpharaoh said in the play. “Except one — on paper.”
UC Santa Cruz’s Cultural Arts and Diversity Resource Center (CADrc) hosted the one-man show on April 26 at Stevenson Event Center.
“We really try to make sure that we bring in a variety of cultural events to the campus,” said director of CADrc Don Williams. “To learn about culture — that gives you a better understanding and appreciation for people and the issues that they deal with.”
“WET” begins with a plea. Entering center stage to blinding white light, Alpharaoh launches into spoken word, waxing combative phrases like, “Martin Luther King had a dream, now he’s dead.” This opening verse scene ends, “I need you to see me.”
With that, the play unfolds. Alpharaoh’s main character, named Anner, is the child of two Guatemalan immigrants, brought to the U.S. at six months old. These six months spell the difference between citizenship and undocumented status, ensnaring adult Anner in a legal Catch-22.
Since he doesn’t have a birth certificate, Anner has to make up a Social Security Number to hold down a job, which when discovered, lands him a probation sentence. This further restricts his movement and job prospects.
Alpharaoh plays over a dozen characters in “WET.” During dialogue exchanges, he switches between roles, sometimes alternating between English and Spanish in scenes with his Guatemalan relatives. The speed of these switches is often comical, but Alpharaoh balances the play’s natural levity with emotive acting and solid plot pacing.
“[Alpharaoh] was so dynamic, and he really put the whole DACA situation into perspective,” UCSC first-year Anjana Manjunath said. “I’m not from here so the experience of applying for a visa and having to wait months and months for it to arrive was very familiar to me.”
The set design of “WET” is sparse. Three stools and a bench are arrayed in quadrants around the stage, the bench downstage to the right. Directly adjacent, a coat hanger holds a snapback and a multicolored hoodie. These items anchor the play’s sense of time and space — at once, a stool is a childhood sofa, an office chair and a seat in an airplane, and Alpharaoh moves between each of them as the story unfolds.
Sound and lighting punctuate salient moments of the production. Toward the beginning of the play, audio of President Barack Obama’s announcement of the DACA program is played on cue as Alpharaoh mimes TV channel changes. In a later scene, red and blue flood lights flash over his skin, representing the glare of a patrolling squad car. Students did the bulk of the backstage work, said Richard Crago, CADrc technical director and UCSC second-year.
“Almost everything was done on Friday, the day of the show,” Crago said. “We pulled it off, even without much rehearsal time.”
The “journey” in “WET: A DACAmented Journey” is a literal one. In the third act of the play, Anner embarks on a weeklong trip to Guatemala to visit his dying grandfather and his father’s grave.
It’s also metaphorical. In “WET”, Anner is caught between two worlds — his identity is suspended between America, his home, and Guatemala, the home of his parents. When Anner visits the grave of his father in Guatemala, he brings with him 15 years of baggage. He asks his father, “How come you don’t talk to me in your dreams anymore. Why were you so selfish?”
Anner doesn’t receive a reply from the beyond, but in voicing his pent-up frustration, he makes peace with the ambiguity of his identity.
So it feels like a backtrack when Anner repeats his plea for the audience to “see him” at the end of the play. Instead of being self-sufficient, his identity relies on confirmation from the audience. This makes his arc seem circular.
But this doesn’t necessarily hurt the narrative, and Anner’s repeated request adds to the political potency of “WET.” Even though Anner is more sure of his identity, his citizenship status — who he is to the rest of society — remains unchanged. He remains powerless to politics, and ends his story at the mercy of the viewers.