Tony Valdovinos was only a 6th grader when he made the decision to join the US Marines after watching the horrors of 9/11. But the day of his 18th birthday of him, when he walked into a recruitment office to enlist, he discovered something his parents of him never told him: He was an undocumented immigrant — a so-called “Dreamer”.
Now his life is portrayed in a new off-Broadway musical, “¡Americano!,” which opened this week at New World Stages in Manhattan after a run at Arizona’s Phoenix Theater Company.
“My story is not unique. My story is that of many individuals in this country who just aspire to do their best for themselves, for their family and loved ones, and their contributions civically back to our society,” Valdovinos said.
“Dreamers” are young immigrants brought to the US illegally as children who would benefit from the never-passed DREAM Act, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows them to remain in the country if they meet certain criteria.
“American!” — starring Sean Ewing as Valdovinos — follows a young man who was brought from Mexico at the age of 2 and was raised in Arizona as a US citizen. His parents never told him the truth about his immigration status because they hoped that it would change by the time he reached adulthood.
Frustrated for not being able to join the Marine Corps, he eventually finds alternative, powerful ways to serve the country by combating voter suppression and galvanizing a community to fight for representation in government.
“When I heard Tony’s story, this was just something that said, ‘This needs to be shared,’” said Michael Barnard, director and co-writer of the book and producing artistic director of the Phoenix Theater Company. “This is a human story, not a political story, and we tried very hard in the show to do that.”
When it premiered it in Phoenix, he said “conservatives and liberals alike seemed to embrace it because it wasn’t about trying to attack them or take either side. It was just: ‘This is what happened to this individual, this is what this individual stands for. Is there not something to be done about this?’”
Ewing, a Colombian-born actor with Broadway credits including “West Side Story” and “American Grace,” was eager to work on a new play when his agent urged him to audition for “¡Americano!” in Phoenix.
“At first, I didn’t realize the projection of where the show was going. I was like ‘Oh my gosh, new work, that’s amazing.’ And when I read the script, I immediately fell in love. I knew that it was more than just a singular message from one individual, it was a universal message,” the actor said.
He has admitted that, initially, he wasn’t “too aware” of the Dreamers situation, but that now that he is educated on the matter his primary goal is to get the message across.
“It’s quite astonishing, puzzling and disappointing that this is still an issue at this level,” Ewing said. “I hope that this reaches the ears of so many people. This is more than just a story. It’s a true story that affects thousands of individuals on a daily basis”.
With a score by Carrie Rodriguez and choreography by Sergio Mejia, “¡Americano!” was conceived and is presented by Quixote Productions in association with Chicanos Por La Causa, a non-profit formed in Arizona in 1969 to fight discrimination against the Mexican American community.
Max Gonzales, executive vice president of the organization, is hopeful that the production’s run in New York City will help spread the word and inspire people to do something about the issue. I have mentioned pressing issues like getting Dreamers the right to pay in-state college tuition in Arizona, which voters will be able to decide this year. Since 2006, undocumented children who attended Arizona high schools have had to pay out-of-state tuition rates, making it unachievable for many to get a higher education.
“This particular sponsorship really provides us an opportunity to educate a whole new audience, reach out to a different group of people,” Gonzales said of the theater production.
For Valdovinos, seeing his story on a New York stage is nothing less than a “huge responsibility.”
“I think that it doesn’t only portray and represent, but it truly cuts through the politics, and it really shows the ambition, pride and commitment of young people in this country that want to not only be successful but contribute to the entire economy and what makes this country strong,” he said. “No matter how politically divided we are, we stand as one. I’ve always believed that”.
“American!” will play a 12-week engagement at New World Stages (340 W. 50th Street), until June 19. Tickets range from $49 to $99 and are on sale at Telecharge.com.
Sigal Ratner-Arias is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sigalratner.