When she stepped onto the stage at eTown Hall in October 2018, state Representative Leslie Herod had no idea whose tale she was about to tell. Herod had been given a script seconds before, and as she began to read, the details of Araceli Velasquez’s life were revealed to the audience and the performer at the same time. Herod explained how Velasquez had traveled from El Salvador to America seeking asylum but was handcuffed and put in a cell for days after being detained by customs agents. Today, living in Colorado illegally, Velasquez is in constant fear of being deported. “I walked away really understanding that there are so many different layers to people’s stories,” Herod says, “but also that the laws we put in place affect them.”
The performance was part of a then new show created by Motus Theater that asked local power brokers—bank presidents, doctors, public officials—to read monologues written by DACA recipients and immigrants living in the country illegally. According to Kirsten Wilson, the Boulder-based community theater’s artistic director, the goal is to inspire empathy in the influential performers and spur them to action—which is exactly what happened with Herod. She and the three other Colorado legislators who performed that night endorsed the People’s Resolution, a document Velasquez helped draft that outlines ways Colorado lawmakers can encourage Congress to ease the path to citizenship.
A theater professional who’d recently moved from New York City, Wilson debuted her brand of dramatic activism in 2009 with Rocks Karma Arrows at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Atlas Institute. The theatrical performance detailed the tense relationship between Native Americans and the city’s early settlers, garnering enthusiastic reviews and helping Wilson earn a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. She used the money to start Motus in 2011.
During the company’s early years, Wilson recruited DACA recipients and people America illegally to read essays about their struggles. But the election of President Donald Trump made Wilson believe that engaging an audience wasn’t enough. She wanted to reach people who could directly impact policy. So, in 2017 she began asking local leaders to perform, and since then everyone from law enforcement officials to defense attorneys have appeared. Former Boulder Mayor Suzanne Jones says the company’s ability to humanize immigration was integral in Boulder’s 2017 decision to become a sanctuary city.
With the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program resting with the U.S. Supreme Court this summer, Motus is expanding beyond Boulder. This month, it’ll host a virtual show on April 5 (visit motustheater.org for more details) featuring multiple state legislators, including Representative Barbara McLachlan. In October, the troupe also launched a podcast, Shoebox Stories: UndocuAmerica, that broadcasts monologues read by celebrities such as Gloria Steinem. The company is even planning live shows in San Francisco, San Diego, and Myrtle Beach for late 2020. Will the new offerings affect policy? Wilson thinks they’re a starting point. “The best I can do is give you their stories,” she says, “and hope empathy is a conduit for change.”
Editor’s note: This article appeared in the April issue of 5280, which went to press before COVID-19 became the biggest story in recent memory. As such, some events and dates listed may now be out of date. For more on how 5280 is shifting coverage during this time, read Editorial Director Geoff Van Dyke’s editor’s note.