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The world, the stage, the way ahead

At the technical rehearsal for semifinals, Deb and the actors from the Peabody Veterans Memorial High School drama club disbanded after posing for a group photo. Jessica Rinaldi

Deb pulled open the heavy door of the high school auditorium and stepped inside, looking around as it clicked shut behind her. She tried to look relaxed, smiling at someone she knew, but every step stirred uncertainty in her.

She had come here to audition for a play, knowing she was likely well out of her league. The students here tonight were an elite, accomplished group. Some of them had been performing together for years. In the high school lobby, just outside the door, a glass display case held the gleaming trophies they had won.

They mingled around her now with easy camaraderie, nervous energy fueling bouts of laughter. Some were Deb’s friends, but this was their home turf. Anakin Fleming had won raves in the prize-winning drama festival show two years ago. Marc Fournier had starred in the play that made it to the finals last year. Melissa Poirier, whom Deb had met in gym class, was both an accomplished dancer and an actor.

Deb was still new to this high school in Peabody. She had arrived a year ago, a stranger dropped into the junior class, knowing no one and lacking all their shared history. She had found her way to the vaunted theater program, where she joined the backstage crew, establishing a foothold in a realm that felt magical. Tonight was a giant leap beyond that modest start. This show, demanding and ambitious, was headed to a high-stakes statewide competition. Fireworks of anxiety shot through her. Did she really think she belonged on that stage?


She had resolved to find out. And maybe, if she made it, she would find a home here, in the school, and also, somehow, in America.

Marc Fournier, Tim Serino, Gabe Goldman, Deb, Melissa Poirier, and Caroline Castro broke into song backstage during a break in practice. Deb had slowly come to trust the tight-knit theater group. Jessica Rinaldi

The students sat together in the cavernous, cinder-block theater and listened as the play’s director laid out a plan for the auditions. Then they went to wait in the hallway by the band room, under a brightly colored mural, where they milled about, murmuring the monologues they had stored on their smartphones.


Deb, whom the Globe is identifying only by her first name, retreated to the ladies’ room, alone. She stood before the sink and stared into the mirror, studying the serious brown eyes that looked back at her under a cascade of red-brown curls. She took a breath and started reading the speech she’d prepared, trying to project emotion with her eyes and face.

“We share everything,” she said, summoning the lines she already knew by heart. “In this family, we share everything.”

The play was called “Water by the Spoonful.” Deb had looked it up and learned it was a drama, dark and raw, about a Puerto Rican family devastated by addiction. The director had posted two monologues online and told them to choose one to read for their audition. Deb had picked the words of a character named Yaz, a young woman who succeeds in spite of family turmoil. Even without knowing much about the play, Deb had recognized at once that Yaz had strength. In the play, she confronts her tangled past, calms the chaos that surrounds her, and moves forward.

Someday, Deb thought longingly, I will do that too.

Few people outside in the hallway knew Deb’s secret, or how alone she was on this November evening in this suburb north of Boston. Her parents had brought her from Brazil to the United States when she was 2 years old, and then, when she was 13, they had uprooted her from everything she knew, returning her to a place that was hopelessly foreign to her. After that, her family broke apart. Her parents went their separate ways, leaving her with a relative. Lost and alone, Deb made a decision to return here and reclaim the only home she’d ever had, whatever the risk.


Deb was surrounded by her fellow cast members as they huddled for their pre-show chant before their first run at an in-school performance.Jessica Rinaldi

She’d had to start over, in a new town, a new school. Her family was far away, except for her older brother, who’d made the same decision and come to Peabody a year before her. He was her anchor, the only other person in the world who truly understood her choice and its consequences.

Back in the hallway, the mood was increasingly restless. Deb’s group of four students would be the last to audition. When it was time, she sat in the front row watching the others, amazed at all the flourishes she hadn’t thought of. Her own turn was a blur, but it seemed that the inner turmoil in the script came out sharper and more true than she’d expected.

Minutes before her audition, her phone had lit up with an incoming text from her brother.

At first, in her distraction, the words on the screen had not made sense. She read them again, and then she understood.

He had bought his ticket. He was going back to Brazil.


LATER ON, ALONE in her bedroom in the house where she lived with her aunt and uncle, Deb arranged in a row the eucalyptus-scented candles she brought out at night to help her sleep, set each alight and sat on the floor beside them. She had not allowed herself to react to her brother’s news at the audition — she was proud she had contained her grief — but afterward, stepping out into the winter night, the shock hit her.

He really was leaving, and soon she would be alone.

Since her brother graduated the previous spring, he had talked off and on about going back to Brazil. Deb hadn’t believed it, or hadn’t wanted to. But Donald Trump’s election had changed things for people like them. Every day, it seemed to Deb, there were battles in a war on immigrants. The hopefulness she’d felt for a while, after finding her way back to this country she loved, had transformed into quietly smoldering dread.

Deb pushed her way through a door off stage during a rehearsal at Danvers High School, where their first performance of the festival would be held. Jessica Rinaldi

By day, Deb played the part of a regular teenager, concerned with grades and devoted to her friends. But late at night, as her candles flickered gently, fear and doubt crept in. Only here, alone in her room, did she let herself dwell on her secret: She was an undocumented immigrant. And though she had a place to live for now, she could not stay with her relatives forever.

Her closest friends knew, and even some of their parents. Their first reaction was always shock — “You?!” — followed by concern or confusion. Deb spoke perfect American English and appeared perfectly American. How could she be at risk of deportation? It frustrated her at times that she had to explain. This was their country. Shouldn’t they know how things worked?


She had grown up in another town near Boston, where she attended kindergarten through eighth grade. Then in 2012, her parents decided to go back to Brazil, a move she’d had no say in. It felt to her like losing everything — her friends, her culture, her identity, her home.

A few months later, in Brazil, her brother came into her room and showed Deb a news story on his phone. Back in the US, President Obama had signed legislation known as DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — that protected immigrant children like them from deportation. “If we had stayed,” he told her angrily, “we could have gone to college.” Now they would not qualify for DACA protection, because their residence in the United States had been interrupted.

Deb was young and didn’t really understand. But as the years passed, her resentment of their displacement grew. Her parents’ marriage failed, and her father moved away in search of steady work. Her mother and younger sister relocated, too. Her older brother went back to the US. That left Deb, at 17, alone in Rio de Janeiro, living with her grandma, dodging drug users camped out on their doorstep.

She felt forgotten, and increasingly desperate, as she began to understand the problems in her native country, the crime rate, the joblessness, the lax standards of the school she attended. Nothing really held her there. So Deb made the hardest decision of her life. She would go back to the US. She applied for, and received, a six-month tourist visa. She packed a bag and gave away her other clothes to friends.

As Yaz Ortiz, Deb rehearsed a pivotal scene in “Water by the Spoonful” with Melissa Poirier as Odessa.Jessica Rinaldi

Just before leaving Brazil, she went to see her dad and say goodbye. For the first time, he apologized for taking her back to Brazil. She saw his regret, and she forgave him, knowing he had only done what had seemed best for their family.

Her mother was another story. For years, Deb hid the feelings of abandonment and confusion her mother had caused her, pretending everything was fine. She was done pretending now — and not yet ready to forgive. But she hated leaving her little sister behind, fearing she, too, would feel unwanted and neglected.

On a spring day in 2016, Deb boarded a plane and flew to the United States. Her heart hammered in her chest as she passed through US Customs in the airport. The stamp the agent pressed into her passport said that she could stay until October, but in her heart she knew she was back for good. Her uncle had agreed to house her for a while in Peabody, until she could get by on her own.

The greatest comfort she had was her brother. A year older than Deb — good-looking, sociable, musically gifted — he had made friends quickly at the high school. It made the transition so much easier for her. She was known there right away, and accepted, as his sister.

Deb could not imagine staying here without him. Nor could she imagine going back.

She blew out the candles and crawled into bed, letting sleep overtake the jumble of worries.

THE NIGHT AFTER the auditions at the high school, the play’s director posted the cast list online. Deb saw it pop up, but she couldn’t bear to look. The possibility of failure was too much. She passed her phone over to her best friend, Rachael Carr.

They were sitting in Rachael’s SUV together, about to drive home from a school chorale rehearsal. The heat was blasting, casting off the November chill, and the radio was on — their usual pop soundtrack, KISS-108 FM. Deb had tossed her overnight bag into the back of the car. She would sleep at Rachael’s house tonight, as she often did. She loved how at home she felt there, how she blended in. Sometimes, after Rachael went up to her room, Deb would sit up talking with Rachael’s mom for hours.

Deb (left) and the rest of Peabody Veterans Memorial High School’s drama cast arrived in Danvers, where they would rehearse for the Massachusetts High School Drama Festival.Jessica Rinaldi

It was Rachael who had joined the stage crew with Deb last year, Rachael who had urged her to try out for this show. Rachael would be a part of it, too, on the crew. In the dark parking lot, Rachael squinted at the cast list, struggling to decipher the crooked rows of text. Deb sat beside her waiting with her eyes screwed shut.

“You got cast!” Rachael screamed at last. “As Fountainhead!”

Deb’s elation turned to bafflement. Fountainhead was a male role. She grabbed her phone from Rachael and peered at the screen like a glowing crystal ball that would reveal her future.

The words came into focus. She was going to be Yaz.

TEN DAYS LATER, on a cloudy Monday morning in December, Deb said goodbye to her brother at the airport. Their farewell outside the terminal felt rushed. He told her he was proud of her for winning a part in the play. Then he turned and abruptly strode away, through the sliding doors that opened wide before him.

Before Deb could absorb it, he was gone. Her uncle steered the car away from Logan Airport and headed north. He dropped her off at school and she walked in the front door just like any other day, except it wasn’t. She thought about her brother on the plane, the roar of takeoff. She had no idea when she would see him again.

Deb remembered walking into school a year earlier, the morning after Trump had been elected president. She had been brand new at Peabody then. She had gone to sleep on election night imagining a woman president, and when she woke up in the morning, checked her phone and saw that Trump had won, she had thought it was a joke. When she realized it was true, she cried for half an hour.

By the time she and her brother got to school, it already felt like everything was different. “I guess you’re out of here,” one student sneered at her brother as they walked in, an apparent reference to his ethnicity or immigration status. It was the first time Deb had ever faced that kind of hostility. From that moment on, she felt exposed and unwanted. Hunted.

Immigration, and Trump’s scathing response to it, had been making headlines ever since. Deb felt compelled to follow each new story — and at the same time desperate to tune it all out. Longing for some tiny sign of progress, she checked her phone for updates on the fight to save DACA. Other times she turned away entirely, dodging the news and the hurt it inflicted.

The closer she got to graduation, the more dark shadows loomed. Her friends were applying to colleges, but she was stuck. There was no financial aid for undocumented students. She set aside her dream of becoming a music therapist, knowing it would not happen anytime soon.

Her aunt and uncle had four kids of their own. They expected her to become self-sufficient once she had her diploma. She had found a part-time job, with help from a drama club friend, but she doubted it would ever pay her rent. She relied on friends and relatives for rides to school and work, knowing one day she would have to drive without a license.

Her brother had been caught driving without a license just before he decided to leave. He had pulled over on the highway after hitting a deer, and a police car pulled up behind. To Deb’s horror, he told the officer the truth. He had no license because he was in the country illegally.

The officer let him go with a citation. But who knew what the next officer would do. Or a judge.

On the Monday that he left, overwhelmed by the reality of his absence, Deb slipped through the high school lobby and into the empty auditorium. She climbed to the top of the high seats at the back and sat there in the silence until she felt steady again.

THEY HAD BEEN rehearsing the play for a month, and Deb still felt hopelessly inadequate. Most of her scenes were with the male lead, Anakin Fleming, the senior who played Yaz’s cousin Elliot. Anakin always seemed to know what he was doing. Deb did not, and she was certain it was obvious.

Rachael Carr, Chloe Currier, and Deb joked as they made gifts in Rachael’s living room to give to the other teams in the semifinals at Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School. Jessica Rinaldi

That was stressful enough, but there was more at stake. This ambitious show would be entered in the Massachusetts High School Drama Festival. The festival was a prestigious, three-round competition, held every March, that winnowed 100 high school plays down to three winners. Peabody’s recent track record had been stellar; expectations were high. In a few more weeks, competition would begin — whether they were ready or not.

On this January night, it was clear they were not. Their director, Stephanie Manning (the students called her Smann), could barely contain her dismay at the technical glitches. “No. Again,” she ordered from her seat halfway up the aisle, her voice level, with a hint of strain. They tried it again. Once again, the lights came up too early.

Manning had chosen this play, by Quiara Alegria Hudes, for their festival run. It was the type of show their high school was known for, serious, demanding, contemporary. The director was young and energetic, her manner somehow both commanding and maternal. She spoke loudly and moved fast, a blur of sneakers and pixie-like short hair. A Peabody graduate herself, now 30, she had instinctive empathy for teenagers, and she believed in them. She expected them to give her everything they had, and they looked up to her, in turn, with affection and respect.

Deb, especially, longed for Manning’s approval. When she lay on the floor of her bedroom late at night, studying her lines in a fog of exhaustion, she was driven by her desire to prove herself to the director. Watching Manning run their rehearsals, Deb saw the kind of adult she aspired to be.

Deb admired the same traits in the character she played. Yaz Ortiz, a young music scholar from a Puerto Rican family, had made something of her life, overcoming her family’s tragic history. But then her aunt Ginny dies, and she discovers that her cousin Elliot, an Iraq War veteran battling PTSD, has been hiding an addiction to painkillers. It falls to Yaz to hold the family intact. Deb admired how Yaz handled the crisis, remaining focused and together.

It was a story that felt personal to Deb. The play’s main character, the struggling former soldier Elliot, is estranged from his mother, Odessa, because of her own long history of addiction. That was a sorrow Deb knew well. She hadn’t talked to her own mother in a year. Their relationship had splintered long ago, and the distance between them had calcified the rift. Mostly, Deb tried not to think about it. But sometimes the play triggered feelings that felt primal, longings she thought she had long ago suppressed.

At the moment, they were rehearsing a pivotal scene near the end of the script, when Yaz finds her aunt Odessa overdosed on heroin. The older woman, played by Deb’s friend Melissa Poirier, lies slumped over unconscious in her apartment as Yaz calls 911 and implores her to keep breathing. At the same time, Yaz must deal with Elliot’s anger, as he rants beside her at his mother’s weakness.

“Don’t just yell at him,” the director coached Deb. “Plead with him. Convince him.”

Deb smiled at the floor and nodded in assent. She added the instructions to her growing checklist. There was always joy and panic when Smann’s attention fell on her. She basked in the light while shrinking from its exposure of her shortcomings.

They tried the scene again with sirens in the background, slowly growing louder like an ambulance approaching. Then Smann asked Deb to improvise a few Portuguese phrases, a substitute for the Spanish her character might use. Deb hesitated, surprised by the request, then fumbled to locate the language of her past, layering it over the plaintive wail of sirens.

“Acorda,” she pleaded, kneeling on the stage as she cradled Melissa’s limp body in her arms. “Não pode ser assim — por favor, acorda!”

Wake up. It can’t be this way — please, wake up!

Something came apart inside Deb then, grief surging like a flood through a broken dam. When the scene ended and she walked offstage, she was stunned to find herself sobbing, unable to stop.

Deb grasped the portrait of Barack Obama that had become Peabody’s talisman as she paced in the classroom that served as their dressing room at semifinals at Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School.Jessica Rinaldi

She did not fully understand what had happened, but she knew it went deep, into her own buried grief. She understood the fear that loomed over Yaz in that scene, and why her character fought so hard to hold the family together. Deb could feel her own distant family drifting from her. How could she hold onto them, across such distance?

Late that night, Deb sat staring at her phone, struggling to write a text message to her mom. There was so much she needed to say, but it had been so long. She wanted her mother to know she didn’t hate her, but also that she needed time to heal. Finally she let go and hit send, holding her breath as the words blinked in transmission.

The reply was the one she had feared, more anger and blame. Deb turned back toward the family that felt real, on the stage that had come to seem like home.

DEB LOVED WAKING UP at Rachael’s house, especially on lazy Saturdays. The family’s comfortable routine enveloped her, buoyed by the promise of the unplanned day ahead. Sometimes they took a ride to Kane’s, the iconic Saugus doughnut shop, on a quest for their favorite indulgences: maple bacon flavor for Deb, Oreo for Rachael. Cruising home, nursing giant iced coffees, they sang along with the songs on the radio.

Deb liked all kinds of music, except country. But she always let Rachael play country, her dad’s favorite, when they took a trip to the cemetery. That was where they headed this February day, south down Route 1 and east toward the sea. In Winthrop Cemetery, where jets roared overhead in descent to Logan Airport, they found the big granite marker, recently inscribed, brown winter leaves spread around it like a carpet. Rachael’s father, Michael Carr, a teacher and high school basketball coach, had died a year ago, at 52, of cancer. Rachael found comfort in visiting his grave, and Deb often went along, a friend who could be trusted with the deepest sorrow.

Deb (center) and the rest of the members of Stage One learned their play was selected to advance to finals during semifinals at Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School. Jessica Rinaldi

Rachael, a blonde, blue-eyed alto in the school chorale, sang as she settled in beside the headstone, a sweet James Taylor classic, “Your Smiling Face,” that her father used to sing to her when she was small. It should have been heartbreaking, but it comforted Deb — the sound of love continuing outside time and distance. It made her feel less alone in missing her own father.

They texted back and forth, but it wasn’t like having a dad. It was easier, in some ways, not to stay in touch, not to be reminded of what she couldn’t have. The father of her childhood, who worked overnight shifts delivering bread, still made time for them, whisking her and her siblings to Canobie Lake Park on an impromptu outing after work.

Many of her peers took family for granted. They were eager to grow up and escape their parents. With them, Deb rarely mentioned her secret dream, which she feared was embarrassingly ordinary, of having her own big, noisy family someday. She didn’t know how many kids she might have, or where they would live. But she knew they would stay together, rooted in one place.

In the meantime, she found family where she could.

Deb had slowly come to trust the tight-knit cast. They were constantly together, close as siblings. It felt right to tell them about her immigration status, and her separation from her family. When their rehearsals went late, she leaned on them, sleeping at many of their homes. She was fearful of intruding, but she marveled at their warmth. Somehow, in an ugly, hate-filled world, she had stumbled into a wellspring of good.

Smann had figured out Deb’s story, too. Quietly, without making any fuss, the director watched over her more closely than the others, checking to be sure she got something to eat on their dinner breaks, making certain she had rides home after their rehearsals. If Deb did not have parents here to care for her, Smann resolved to keep an eye on her instead.

Deb sensed that the dynamic between them had shifted. She was careful not to lean too far toward the director, but she drank in her kindness.

It was still overwhelming, standing on that stage. But her faith in everyone around her eased her fear.

Sitting next to Rachael by her father’s grave, Deb listened to her friend as she sang, her voice clear and strong in the cold air.

WITH A WEEK left until the start of competition, Smann seemed to talk faster, jog more quickly down the aisles, cramming more into their time together. The actors’ diction was still spotty, their volume up and down. Over and over, she reminded them to listen, to have conversations, instead of reciting lines, or shouting them.

Director Stephanie Manning, known to the kids as “Smann,” took in the show as the cast ran through scenes during their tech rehearsal for finals. Jessica Rinaldi

Teaching them to listen to each other while onstage was the hardest, most important lesson. A lot of adult actors couldn’t manage it, she said. Their brains were too busy remembering their lines. She reached for the words to explain what she meant: To make the play feel real, they had to make it new each time.

“In life, as in theater,” she said, “you can never replicate a moment.”

Deb felt like she was hurtling too fast toward the end — the end of the play and the grounding it gave her, and the end of school and everything certain in her life. She forced herself to focus on the present. She ticked through a mental checklist of the director’s advice, trying to keep all Smann’s wisdom in her head at once. She obsessed over her props — Yaz’s purse, the jacket she wore at the funeral, the laptop that was critical in the play’s final moments — afraid they wouldn’t be there when she reached for them. The play was the world she could control. She held on to it tightly.

One thing gave her increasing confidence, and that was her ability to channel Yaz. Since December, when they began, she had practiced setting everything else aside at rehearsal. To Deb, her character’s ability to do that, to step away from worries and distractions and focus on the moment at hand, was the source of her strength. Whatever darkness had plagued Deb during the winter — Trump’s continued calls for a wall at the Mexican border, her guilt at abandoning her little sister in Brazil, and her worry about burdening the aunt and uncle she lived with — she blocked it all out when she became Yaz.

Unless she needed to use it. That was yet another skill that Smann was teaching her.

One night, as they rehearsed a scene in which Yaz learns that Elliot has hidden his addiction, Smann told Deb she should play it angrier. “I think she’s pissed!” Manning said. Then the director looked probingly at Deb.

“Has anyone ever kept something important from you?” she asked.

Deb gazed back at her, thinking of her brother. She had just learned his latest secret, that he planned to marry his girlfriend in Brazil. The sting of the unexpected news was still fresh. Deb hadn’t heard it from him, but from a mutual friend.

“Yes,” she answered softly, holding back tears. The longer her brother was gone, the less she felt she knew him. But she understood what Smann wanted her to do.

The next time through the scene, she thought of her brother. Anger flared. And she felt a thrill when she knew what she had done, her heartache shaping something beautiful and real.

THEY WERE REHEARSING one of the play’s most difficult scenes a few days before the start of competition when it finally happened. One minute they were saying lines, like they always did. Then, all at once, they were really talking to each other.

It was like a switch had been flipped. To Deb it felt as if she had been deaf until this moment. So that’s what Anakin is saying, she thought as she listened.

The next day they performed the play in school. The auditorium filled with noisy students brought there by their teachers, indifferent to the show about to begin, but amped up by the welcome escape from classroom routine. The cast felt exposed and vulnerable, unveiling work that meant so much. They worried that their classmates wouldn’t get it, wouldn’t care. When it ended, and the lights went down, Deb sat holding her breath. The next sound she heard was a sniff. Someone in the audience was crying.

Wonder flooded her as she realized the power they had. They had made somebody out there feel something.

After school, they broke down the set and carried it out the backstage door piece by piece, past the piles of discarded props from other shows and the names of past seniors painted on the walls. They loaded it onto a truck bound for Danvers High School, where they would rehearse just once before the drama contest.

The air outside was unseasonably springlike. Cast and crew, jacketless and giddy, gathered in clusters and stood chatting in the sun. Deb, in a plaid flannel shirt and black Converse sneakers, was one of those who remained focused on their task. She grabbed the side of an old porcelain bathtub and helped hoist it up into the truck. Then she hopped nimbly onto the truck’s back edge, directing those below her as they lifted the tub’s heavy wooden cover.

“OK,” Deb called, “3,2,1, go!”

She didn’t even notice she’d taken the lead, or how much she resembled Yaz.

THE FIRST ROUND of the competition in Danvers went as well as they could have hoped. They won, and had fun doing it. And so, a week later, they packed up again, for the second round at Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School. They arrived hours early, but the tight morning schedule ran late. Waiting in a sunlit classroom for their turn to perform, nervousness lapsed into boredom.

As the actors gathered into a tight circle before their final performance, Deb thrust out her hand with her Brazilian passport in it. Jessica Rinaldi

Deb had been worrying for hours, since waking up early at Rachael’s house to curl her hair. After all the rushing to get here, to get ready, the unexpected lull was both soothing and unnerving. They prowled the space, keeping busy — Melissa singing to herself, Anakin running lines, Marc opening a window for some air — each keenly aware of the countdown under way. Just ahead was their moment of reckoning, the performance that would send them home in defeat or on to the final round in victory.

The mood at today’s semifinal was different, more momentous, than the light-hearted vibe the week before. Each of them silently willed themselves not to fail. As much as Deb had anticipated the pressure, she could not believe how crushing it felt.

Their 11:30 a.m. assigned start time came and went. They danced, and stretched, and did their diction exercises, standing in a circle. “Unique New York,” they recited together, their consonants crisp. “The big black bug bit the big black bear.”

Smann stopped by and gave her final counsel: Don’t rush the important moments. Let them breathe.

Doodling on a chalkboard in a corner, Deb signed her name in character. Yaz was here.

Finally, close to noon, the knock came on the door. The judges were ready for them.

Deb felt sick from fear, and she could not shake it. The terror stayed with her as they sprinted down the hall to the backstage door, as they took their positions in the wings, as she yelled her first line — “Elliot!” — and made her entrance.

A few minutes later, she sat on the stage floor. A castmate, Marc Fournier, was seated on a platform right behind her. The play’s action had moved elsewhere, leaving them in shadow. All at once, Deb realized she could hear Marc talking. He was murmuring under his breath, riffing absurdly in character, barely audible but loud enough that she could hear him.

We’re here onstage at semis, and he’s joking around, like we were rehearsing back in Peabody, she marveled.

Her astonishment lifted her out of her fear. When she came back to herself, she knew that she would make it. She began again to listen, and to hear.

THAT NIGHT, IN the high school cafeteria, all the competing schools gathered for a dance while the judges tended to their business elsewhere. The music was loud and the lights were low. Deb was in the center of the crowd, dancing with abandon with her friends around her. One of them held a laminated photograph of Barack Obama high over his head. The well-worn photo of the former president had long been the Peabody students’ good-luck charm. It accompanied them to every competition, and it always drew cheers from the other schools.

Manning passed out letters to each of her students before finals. Jessica Rinaldi

This was the freest Deb had felt in a long time, the performance behind her and their hopes still intact. As she danced, she was fully in the present, her past and future fading to irrelevance. Nothing mattered now but the music — Beyonce’s “Single Ladies,” classic Abba, ’80s ballads. When Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” came booming through the speakers, everybody started singing it together.

Just a small-town girl, livin’ in a lonely world

She took the midnight train go-in’ an-y-where ...

Don’t stop believin’

Hold onto that feelin’

Deb was sweating and laughing in a tank top as she came off the dance floor and went looking for a drink of water. This was the festival mood she remembered from last year — a carefree belonging that was happiness itself.

After all the long nights of rehearsal, battling her own insecurities, she could finally see that she had done something worthwhile. She had seized an opportunity and held her own. No matter what the judges said tonight, they couldn’t take away the gifts these months had given her.

“If we’re not going to win,” Deb said to no one in particular, “we might as well have a good time.”

Just then, a voice blared out of the school’s speakers. It was time to reconvene and announce the winners. Deb felt a quick stab of disappointment. Around her, the euphoria of the dance was already dissolving, overtaken by anxious anticipation. The students surged out of the cafeteria and streamed back to their seats in the auditorium. Deb smoothed her hair behind her ears and stayed close to Rachael.

On the stage, two silver bowls sat on a table. An excited buzz coursed through the room. Of the six high schools present, only two would leave here winners. They would advance to the finals in Boston in two weeks, with a dozen other winners being named tonight at other semifinal sites.

They could not pretend that winning didn’t matter. Peabody’s recent successes — five trips to the state finals, and three wins, in six years — had established lofty expectations. It would feel like failure if they weren’t sent on to Boston.

Sitting quietly, listening to the judges, Deb felt utterly uncertain of their chances. To her, the show had been a blur; she could not assess it. They all knew that anything could happen.

She had imagined this moment countless times. All along, she had wished: Just let us make it to Boston. The others felt the same. What they wanted most was not a trophy or a title. They wanted to keep going, and postpone the ending.

For Deb, there was an added incentive, one she hadn’t expected. Every time she stood up on the stage, it felt to her like a tiny act of protest — an undocumented immigrant, meant to hide in the shadows, stepping out instead into the spotlight.

Even if almost no one watching knew her secret, her refusal to hide mattered deeply to her. Maybe it was reckless, but she wanted one last chance to stand up unafraid, on an even bigger stage in Boston’s Back Bay.

Her heart was beating fast as the ceremony wound down. When one of the judges suddenly said their school’s name — “Peabody Veterans Memorial High School” — the abruptness of it briefly stunned them. Then someone screamed “Yes!” and she leapt to her feet, propelled by pure, uncomplicated joy. They were laughing and hugging, and then it was time to go home. In a daze they gathered up their things and piled onto the buses idling out front.

Back at the high school in Peabody, after 10 p.m., an impromptu celebration broke out. Some students snapped selfies with the silver trophy. Others climbed up on a truck to sing. Deb was content to stand off to one side, gazing up at the bright stars in the cold, dark sky.

She knew this night might be the best they had. She felt it streaming by and tried to make it last.

TWO WEEKS LATER, in a small dressing room behind the stage in Boston, the cast squeezed together in front of a big mirror, joking, sparring, mocking one another fondly. The room was crowded, warm, loud, bright. Deb rearranged her hair on top of her head.

“Guys, you should be warming up,” their director prodded. “Come on. Let’s move with some purpose.”

Backstage at the finals of the Massachusetts High School Drama Festival, Deb lay quietly on the floor, her hair spread out around her. Jessica Rinaldi

They had spent the last two days here, at the Back Bay Events Center near Copley Square, watching the other finalists perform. It felt like a celebration of everything they had worked for. It did not seem possible that this was their last performance. The thought was a paralyzing distraction they tried to ignore.

It’s not over, Smann kept saying. Stay in the moment.

The actors stood up in the center of the room. Dutifully, they performed their diction exercises. Then Smann gathered them into a tight circle. Be alive, she reminded them. Be fully present. She called for them to extend their hands into the center. Deb thrust out her hand with her Brazilian passport in it, navy blue with gold stars on the cover, and held it there, where their hands all came together.

She could not have explained the impulse in words. But maybe there was some magic in this moment, a kind of spell or blessing she could cast across her future.

Together, they recited the rhyme they always said before a show — whatever the weather, we’re in this together.

Smann slipped out. It was up to them now.

Beneath the electric sense of purpose in the room, finality licked like a flame. They pushed it aside, but the hard truth remained: They would never be together like this again.

A stagehand appeared at the door. “Are you guys ready?”

Moments before their final performance at the state drama festival, Deb embraced her fellow cast members.Jessica Rinaldi

AN EXPECTANT HUSH fell across the auditorium. The actors took their places in the wings, in the shadows. In the excruciating pause before the first cue, time seemed to slow.

Deb stood waiting in the half-light, her nerves taut. Out there in the darkness, her future loomed, uncertain. The end of high school, moving out on her own, finding her way in a world that might not want her. Would she ever see her family again? Would she ever be able to live without the fear of a knock on the door, of losing her country?

Tonight, they might win and they might lose. She didn’t know how that would turn out either, and in this suspended moment, it didn’t seem to matter. There was only the dream, and the striving toward it.

Above them, from her perch in the lighting booth, the stage manager spoke into her headset.

The first jangle of guitar music rose into the theater, mysterious and stirring. The actors stepped into the light, and the play began.

By Jenna Russell | Photos by Jessica Rinaldi

Jenna Russell can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe.