Playwright Catherine Filloux Confronts the Tragedy of Child-Separation Policy

When, in June 2018, Judge Dana Sabraw of California put a legal chokehold on the Trump administration’s unconscionable child-separation policy, one could sense a collective sigh of relief emanating from our nation’s soul. No matter your stance on immigration, tearing thousands of petrified children from their parents’ arms was a moral violation Americans could not stomach.  But nearly a year after Judge Sabraw’s ruling, the trauma orchestrated by Trump and his band of child-catchers continues, and, although the widespread outrage may have subsided, the immorality of it all has only intensified.

Last month, in a court filing, the Justice Department admitted that the timeframe for reuniting these children with their families would be one year, two years or maybe longer.  Because no records were kept, bureaucrats must sift through reams of data to connect dots that may or may not lead them to each child’s family’s whereabouts. This filing lays bare a cruel truth.  While officials devised a plan to separate children from their parents, they gave no thought to reuniting them. Even if these children are miraculously, at some point, able to rejoin their families, their trauma will be far from over.  As child healthcare advocates have been warning since the very beginning of this crisis, when young children experience such extreme trauma, their brain development is compromised, often irreversibly so.

Catherine Filloux (Photo: Vandy Rattana)

Playwright Catherine Filloux, a recipient of the 2017 Otto René Castillo Award for Political Theatre and 2015 Planet Activist Award, has made this grim truth the focus of her latest work.  Set against the backdrop of this country’s escalating crackdown on immigrants, turning your body into a compass tells the story of two women, a human rights advocate and a neuroscientist, who join forces to expose the irreparable trauma inflicted on children separated from their families. Conceived as a 360° web story, turning your body into a compass will be livestreamed on May 13th at 3 p.m. EST. For more information and to access the livestream go to the website.

Woman Around Town recently sat down with Filloux to discuss her latest work and why she chose to present it outside the traditional theater setting.  

Katlyn Campos who plays “Girl” and Felipe Salinas who plays “Mateo” in 
Catherine Filloux’s
 turning your body into a compass

Most stories about child-parent separations – whether news stories, documentaries or others – are told through the action of separation and its immediate consequences. Yet you have chosen to tell the story through the lens of two women, a human rights advocate and a neuroscientist.  What was the creative genesis of that choice? 

RAICES, one of our outreach partners, is now the largest immigration legal services provider in Texas and they identify our current crisis as a chance for the U.S. to find its soul again.  That is very much what turning your body into a compass is about. The two main characters, Jean Hatch, a human rights advocate, and Sophie Goldman, a neuroscientist, both U.S. citizens, are struggling to do just that.  Sophie remembers what happened to the Jews fleeing the Nazis when their ship was turned away from the U.S. during World War II.  Sophie’s research as a neuroscientist fuels her fight to shine the light on how we are damaging our children.  Jean is a human rights activist working within the structure of a non-governmental organization.  If Jean and Sophie, in their separate fields, combine forces, can they be stronger? Can they move us closer to this country’s ideals?  Individual action matters.

Mia Katigbak and Alexis Camins in Catherine Filloux’s Eyes of the Heart

After writing my play Eyes of the Heart, about psychosomatic blindness in Cambodian refugee women, I wanted to go deeper into exploring science in my writing of this web story.  Also, one of the key influences of turning your body into a compass is St. Rita’s Refugee Center in the Bronx, New York.  As part of my research for Eyes of the Heart, I developed an Oral History Project, “A Circle of Grace”, with the Cambodian Woman’s Group at St. Rita’s.  And I taught E.S.L. to Cambodian refugees, and to refugees from a variety of countries.  I spent many years watching St. Rita’s director Sister Jean Marshall welcome refugees through the door.  There is no way to describe how much I learned from the refugees, the nuns and the staff at St. Rita’s.  

I also love the part in Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life where she talks about entering the room where she writes, with a chair to wrestle with the lion.  Research, study, interviews can become overwhelming and sometimes it is a challenge to know when to stop.  You don’t necessarily want to tame that lion, but you do need to put the words on the page–eventually.  The research for turning your body into a compass has been extensive, not to mention that sadly the news keeps morphing.  

Katlyn Campos as “Girl” in Catherine Filloux’s turning your body into a compass

Your plays are widely celebrated for their thoughtful and incisive focus on human rights and social justice issues.  However, balancing storytelling with social justice messaging can be tricky. How are you able to so successfully weave activism into your storytelling?

It is because of borders and migration that I am the person and first-generation U.S. artist I am.  

I grew up on the border between San Diego and Tijuana and was very familiar with that border and with Mexico, where my family camped a lot.  My father grew up in France during the Nazi occupation when the country was split into zones.  My mother’s French-Belgian-Corsican family lived in Algeria, North Africa, for three generations before her.  I inherited, not by choice, the privilege of being a citizen of the world.  And, yes, I’ve been to Kansas!  “There’s no place like home,” but “where is home?” I have asked myself. When I studied anthropology in school that opened a door for me to the necessity for deep context, and that anthropological approach inspires and challenges me.  

All my plays are about my own complicity: that of being from the United States.  Rather than being some kind of punishment for myself (or my country) I believe this work, as an artist, may help fight repression and abuse. 

Border Child, Oil on Canvas, 2018, by Nicholas Rosal

Can you tell me about the artwork you are using to promote turning your body into a compass?

I’m so glad you asked about that. Border Child is a painting by the exceptional artist Nicholas Rosal. He painted it in 2018 and my producers, both friends of his, read my script and immediately thought of his painting. The child’s face captures not only the moment of trauma, the point of no return, but the pain expressed in his face epitomizes to me how, in separating children from their parents, we, as a country, have lost our way. And one of the characters in my story, a young boy named Mateo, embodies the fears of the boy in the painting. It was one of those connections that was meant to be.

As a playwright, most of your work has been presented within the framework of traditional theater, i.e. some version of an audience and a stage.  What was it about turning your body into a compass that inspired you to take on a more experimental approach?

I have been writing about social justice and human rights for 25 years and have always explored ways to create work that is as accessible as it is impactful. I’ve often thought that a significant portion of the population is left out of theater audiences in the U.S. and wondered how the ubiquitous use these days of screens as a “venue” for the sharing of stories might fuse with elements of live theater.  So, with my newest work — about deportation and children – I decided to work with CultureHub, a global art and technology community located here in New York and founded in partnership with the experimental theater group LaMaMa. The collaboration has been a dream come true.  

Working with CultureHub’s technologists and my own creative team, we are presenting turning your body into a compass as a livestream web story that can be accessed globally, for free, by anyone with a computer, tablet or phone.  While I appreciate that not everyone has the economic privilege of internet access, the act of livestreaming the work on the web expands access and democratizes the storytelling well beyond the traditional theater audience.  Everyone involved is excited about this method of storytelling and it is an experiment which I hope to continue to refine, both artistically, and in terms of outreach. 

Katlyn Campos and Dana Iannuzzi in turning your body into a compass

How has the new technology shaped your storytelling compared to previous work presented more traditionally? 

I wrote it in a visual style that I thought would work for the livestream format.  It will have some prerecorded filmed and graphic elements, but most of it will be staged as a reading.  So not only are we democratizing this story experience, we are also livestreaming it in 360°. That means that although turning your body into a compass can be watched as a traditional program, it can also be watched via the 360° livestream technology which allows viewers the unique opportunity to interact with the production in real time and in a curved space. 

You can explore different areas of the stage and follow the actors as the story unfolds. If you watch on a smart phone all you have to do is swipe the screen to move around. On a computer, you can navigate the 360° environment with your mouse by clicking and dragging to new, in the same way you might operate an online game. It’s like having a front row seat right in your pocket. Plus you can watch the program as it is livestreamed on May 13th at 3 p.m. EST or anytime after the livestream, again, all for free, on CultureHub’s youtube channel.

Equally exciting is that afterwards there will be a livechat with the audience and I’m thrilled to announce that we will have two special guests, Erika Andiola, Chief Officer of Advocacy for RAICEStexas.org, an organization that has been providing free legal aid to the immigrant community and Grahame Russell, Director of RightsAction.org, a group that works and monitors the situation in countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. 

What do you hope the audience takes away from turning your body into a compass

I hope our team and the audience will be involved in a collaboration, a co-creation.  A web story that lives and breathes in a larger, global community that ignites thought, discussion and reflection; a prism which casts different lights for each audience member.  Everyone imagines and interprets stories differently, which allows at once a shared and personal experience.