Theater & dance

For this noncitizen, there’s risk in every performance

Alex Alpharaoh in “WET: A DACAmented Journey.”
Ray Shaw
Alex Alpharaoh in “WET: A DACAmented Journey.”

Alex Alpharaoh was tired of living in the shadows. So he stepped into the spotlight.

And he’s not sure what’ll happen next.

Brought into the United States illegally at 3 months old by his 15-year-old mother, Alpharaoh grew up thinking of himself as a native Los Angelino, but aware he lacked the “papers” that would allow him to live, work, and travel freely and openly in this country.

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That didn’t stop him from graduating college and becoming an accomplished social worker, committed dad, and active artist in the LA theater community. He did obtain legal status, short of full citizenship, which provided some peace of mind. But the election of Donald Trump to the presidency cued a frenzied scramble to upgrade his status before he could potentially be deported.

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Any actor performing a one-man show about his real-life experiences — as Alpharaoh will do with “WET: A DACAmented Journey” at the Paramount Center’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box through Nov. 25 — makes himself vulnerable, in a sense. But Alpharoah’s stakes are higher than usual.

“He tells you right off the top of the night that he’s not safe even giving this performance,” says David Dower, artistic director of ArtsEmerson, which is presenting “WET,” “and it could be anybody in this audience that causes him to be deported. He’s going to risk it and tell us his story, but there is no safety for him in this present time.”

Alpharoah has every legal right to live and work in the United States, under the protections of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, commonly known as DACA. But President Trump has threatened to end that program; just this week his administration asked the US Supreme Court to overturn lower court rulings now blocking him from doing so.

In the even shorter term, Alpharoah’s safety is imperiled, he said, by the potential of a politically motivated arrest or even the violent act of some unhinged individual who has repeatedly heard the president describe people like Alpharoah as invaders.

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“I can walk out of this theater,” Alpharaoh said in a phone interview from Dallas, “get arrested for some bogus reason, and all they need is the quote unquote suspicion of a crime to hold me indefinitely under the Patriot Act and try to find reasons to strip me of my DACA status and then deport me.”

To describe “WET” simply as an accumulation of its plot points would be to sell short its intensity. It is largely the story of the bureaucratic hoops Alpharaoh had to jump through — including a four-day trip to his home country of Guatemala, with no guarantee he’d be allowed back into the United States upon return.

But it unspools like a thriller, with Trump’s inauguration looming threateningly. In the collision of the narrator’s deeply personal, high-stakes journey with the cool, impenetrable functions of government bureaucracy, “WET” has a Kafkaesque quality.

“I see the value of artists as mobilizers in society and I think they have a unique ability to hold a mirror to things that are going on,” says Brisa Areli Muñoz, the show’s director. “In some ways Alex’s piece and his story is exactly that.”

When Alpharaoh performed “WET” in Los Angeles last year, it was a “coming out party” about his family history, he said. Even his friends and co-workers didn’t know he wasn’t a US citizen, and that his continued presence in the country was so tenuous.

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“My identity as a human being and how I turn up to places and present myself is intimately tied into my life as an artist,” he said.

‘I have to tell my story. . . . I’m tired of hiding. I’m a human being. I deserve to be seen, and as a person I deserve to be heard.”’

“I said I have to stand up, I have to tell my story. Performing it in front of audiences was a way for me to say I’m tired of hiding. I’m a human being. I deserve to be seen, and as a person I deserve to be heard.”

The show grew even more topical over the course of its current national tour, which ArtsEmerson co-commissioned. The president increasingly based his political argument heading into this week’s midterm elections on the assertion that asylum-seeking migrants traveling more than 1,000 miles on foot from Central America constitute an invading army.

Alpharaoh spoke with some audience members who were sympathetic to those warnings. A woman he encountered post-show in Hartford, he said, accused him of being “an illegal.”

“It was a raw, raw experience because she said a lot of things that were very hurtful, and they were laced with anger. But I could see that this person was in pain too, this person was hurting and wanted to be heard and be seen. I had to take a dosage of my own medicine. At the beginning of the play I say that I need your help, I need you to see me in the fullness of my humanity. That also means I need you to see you in the fullness of yours.”

He wasn’t necessarily trying to win an argument, he said, but to encourage her to think about the issue differently.

When he noticed that same theatergoer in the audience at a later performance, with a friend in tow, he figured he’d succeeded.

WET: A DACAmented Journey

Presented by ArtsEmerson. At the Jackie Liebergott Black Box, Paramount Center, Boston, Nov. 8-25. Tickets $60, 617-824-8400, www.ArtsEmerson.org

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com. Follow him on Twitter @JeremyDGoodwin.