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St. Louis Theater Troupe Uses Improv To Bring Immigration Stories To Life

The Playback NOW! St. Louis cast poses with immigration storytelling volunteer Junior Lara (middle).
Joan Lipkin

Junior Lara distinctly remembers the day he was approved for his U.S. green card. It was 1993, and he was nine years old. It was the first time he had ever signed his name.

A year later, Lara, his mother and three brothers moved from the Dominican Republic to New York City to reunite with his father who had been working for years to bring his family to the U.S.

Lara’s American journey is one of about five migration accounts that Playback NOW!St. Louis, a theater troupe with That Uppity Theatre Company, will perform along with storytelling volunteers at Missouri History Museum on Sunday. They will use improv to bring the stories to life in "Your Immigration Stories, Mine and Ours."

“Immigration is another word for uncertainty, and a lot of challenges come from that,” said Lara.

For Lara, 35, telling his migration story while the troupe reenacts his memories through improv is a fitting way to accurately express the emotions he felt as a child.

Through Playback NOW! St. Louis, the show’s producing artistic director Joan Lipkin has told local stories about gender identity, racism and immigration through improv for nearly 10 years. This is the first time the troupe will dedicate an entire show to the topic of immigration.

She said the performance will portray the challenges immigrants face and honor the courage it takes to adapt to a new country. 

“I have long been interested in the experiences of immigrants, because my own mother was born on the boat when her family fled Poland to escape religious persecution," Lipkin said. 

Her interest in immigration has been heightened by Trump administration policies; specifically, the travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries, the treatment of refugees seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border and the imprisonment of migrant children.

An Interactive Event

The troupe will solicit audience participation. Attendees will be invited to share their personal immigration stories on stage while the performers interpret them.

Lara said he hopes the performances and stories will lead the audience members to discussions “about other viewpoints and expose them to other experiences.”

“When you get to know the Latino experience, you realize, 'I would have done the same exact thing if I had been in the same shoes as that mom or dad who didn’t have the resources and was less than 500 miles away from a place that provided them with a wealth of resources,'” Lara said.

Some challenges Lara experienced when he moved to St. Louis at 19 was finding a supportive Latino community. He said it took him some years to pinpoint that network because to him, the city is a curtain city.

“Latinos are here, but because they aren’t as established as they are in different states and cities, they are scattered — but when you pull back the curtain, it’s like, 'This is where you guys have always been,'" he said.

The St. Louis Voter Registration Group will provide on-site voter registration for people who attend the performance.

Related: Lara shares advice to other Latinos in the St. Louis region on his podcast Auténtico.

If you go:

  • "Your Immigration Stories, Mine and Ours"
  • Missouri History Museum, St. Louis
  • Sunday, April 28 at 2 p.m.
  • Free

Andrea Y. Henderson is part of the public-radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon. Follow Andrea at @drebjournalist.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.