Playwright, producers clash over “Border Crossing”


On May 4, Border Crossing, a play about immigration, finished an 8-day-run at the Ritz Theater. The play was produced and directed by the Off-Leash Area, a Minneapolis company known for adventurous movement-based productions. Reviews were complimentary, but the playwright, Marcie Rendon, refused to see it. Rendon also insisted that the program read: “The text was adapted and excerpted from a larger body of work by Marcie Rendon.” She asked for corrections in reviews that didn’t make that clear, and posted a letter on her blog after the play opened.

Also in the Daily Planet, read Sheila Regan’s review of Border Crossing.

I had hoped to include a very strong voice for Indigenous people in this piece. I had hoped to include a very strong voice for Migrant people in this piece…I wrote dialogue for native peoples. That dialogue was cut…I wrote dialogue for the characters crossing the desert. That dialogue was cut. I argued to give voice to the oppressed. My voice was silenced. I am sorry.

Rendon is Anishinabe, a Native American author from the White Earth Reservation, and she says her art represents “vanished peoples.” She says telling the story of how immigrants die crossing the border was close to her heart.

For more information, see Marcie Rendon’s blog and the Off-Leash Area’s Web site.

In November, Rendon traveled to Ajo, Arizona—near Tucson, on the Mexican border—with a team that included Off-Leash Area artistic directors Paul Herwig and Jennifer Ilse, as well as Minnesota human rights activist Rosita Balch. Rendon says that at the time she felt tension about the group working together, but she says she thought they would be able to work through it. “I still thought that I was writing a script about Native issues, and migrant crossing issues.”

Conflict and the creative process

Playwright Steve Moulds directed a play at the Teatro del Pueblo Political Theater Festival in February. Moulds, who didn’t see Border Crossing, says a playwright’s decision to go public is rare. “It’s unusual to air creative grievances publicly. If I had a real difference of opinion with a producer, I might tell my friends, but it would probably end there.”

Sarah Bellamy is education director at the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, a theater that specializes in plays about race and African-American culture. Bellamy didn’t see Border Crossing either, but she says she can see both sides of the conflict. Bellamy says she’s sympathetic to producers trying to create the best work possible. “Off-Leash has to decide either to stand up for artistic excellence or do what the playwright has suggested,” says Bellamy. “Every organization has a right to decide that for themselves.”

But Bellamy says that when artists and theater companies want to work across cultural lines, they have to tread lightly and all parties have to be willing to compromise. “Marcie is a staunch activist. If she thinks her voice was misrepresented, I’m sure that was frustrating for her. It goes to this old question of theater: Any organization—a theater, production company, whoever—needs to be able to respect the cultural purview of an artist.”

Bellamy and Moulds agree that having agreements up front is key. But Craig Harris, managing director of the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, says artists create all kinds of agreements. “There are lots of informal agreements between playwrights and companies. Playwrights want to get their work out there.” Harris says sometimes these informal agreements end up leaving artists unsatisfied.

Border Crossing follows an 11-year-old girl who is left by smugglers in the desert to die. The audience hears from a park ranger, a border patrol agent, a social activist, and a white northerner known as the Snowbird. The audience also hears from a deer and from the desert spirit—both of whom lament the creation of a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The characters in the production were based in part on interviews conducted by Rendon, Herwig, Ilse, and Balch with a border patrol agent, a park ranger, and a human rights activist. Rendon spent three days on the Tohono O’odham Reservation, and pushed for a Native character.

Accounts of what went wrong differ. By the time the play was produced, the immigrant characters were without dialogue and the Native character had been cut. Ilse says she had worked out the immigrant characters before the dialogue was written, and that the actor meant to portray the Native character suffered an injury and couldn’t perform.

Herwig and Ilse say the conflict with Rendon has been painful, but they feel they have treated Rendon and her script with respect. In e-mail exchanges a month before the play opened, Herwig and Ilse negotiated a contract with Rendon about the “excerpted and adapted” disclaimer, and tried to make amends.

On March 8, Ilse wrote to Rendon:

Marcie – I am deeply disappointed that we have somehow so hugely offended you…I am extremely disappointed that you felt the need to make this into a confrontation. Paul and I both always felt we have had a great artistic relationship with you…Evidently the experience has not been likewise.

Rendon was conciliatory as well. Regarding her desire for the “excerpted and adapted” disclaimer, she wrote:

I want clarity – every person has edited my words or weighed in on what should be said, or not said, from the entire cast to [other production staff] to you both, and I don’t know who all else. I do not think it is a bad script nor do I have a problem with the text as it is, or as it has been changed. Is it my text? No. It is a conglomeration of, at this point, I don’t even know how many people.

In the end, the script wasn’t something Rendon wanted her name attached to. Citing both the cuts to her original script and the casting of white actors as Mexican immigrants, Rendon now says she thinks the production came off as racist. “I’m embarrassed, and humiliated, that I as a Native woman wrote this.”

Rendon argued to Ilse and Herwig that the immigrant characters should speak. Ilse said that they would express themselves through dance, but Rendon says that wasn’t enough. “You are writing about an oppressed people, you’ve taken their voice.”

Ilse says Rendon’s criticisms are unfair. Finding modern dancers who are Latino, she says, was just not possible at the time. Further, Ilse says the dialogue that she cut from the immigrant characters was minimal. Ilse said she tried to have the dancers portraying the immigrant characters speak the lines, but it came off as unprofessional. “I am hesitant to have dancers speak, because that’s not their strength.” Regarding Rendon’s charge that the production came off as racist, Ilse says that “I think the audience has to decide for themselves.”

Ilse says the Off-Leash Area has had conflicts with artists in the past, but they’ve never had a public fight like this. “We try to be humble, and we will learn from this. I think it’s rooted in figuring out how to work together.”

Joel Grostephan is a reporter based in St. Paul. His work is regularly aired on KFAI Radio and in The Environment Report (based in Ann Arbor, Michigan). He’s always looking for a good story about class, race or poverty.