Since 2011, Boulder-based non-profit Motus Theater has brought compelling autobiographical stories of marginalized voices to the forefront. Through engaging theatrical performances, national podcasts and more, the altruistic group manages to entertain, inform and spark much-needed dialogue around current hot-button issues within the nation.
Now, Boulder’s conscious performing arts group is back with its multi-medium series “UndocuAmerica: Shoebox Stories.” Under the layered umbrella of social justice art is a podcast featuring notable figures such as Gloria Steinem and John Lithgow reading the real-life accounts of undocumented local immigrants currently protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA.) In conjunction with the podcast, “Shoebox Stories Live” will bring these insightful narratives to the Dairy’s stage where monologists will stand beside a cross-section of community leaders who will read their stories starting Monday and running through Jan.17.
“The stories you hold close to you are the ones that influence how you think, act and vote,” said Kirsten Wilson, founder and artistic director of Motus Theater. “We are trying to be really strategic. The Supreme Court is looking to end or continue DACA in June. We have an opportunity and an obligation to reach as many people with DACA stories.”
In 2017, Motus gained national attention and praise for its performance of “Do You Know Who I Am,” an event that featured members of Colorado law enforcement, including former Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett, reading the gripping words of local people protected under DACA.
The solidarity and support surrounding the effort of Motus will continue when leaders from the Youth Opportunities Advisory Board, Boulder Jewish Community Center, Center of the American West, Boulder Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Votes read the words of DREAMers at the upcoming “Shoebox Stories Live.”
“One of the best ways to live on this planet is to resist every temptation to stereotype and to give empathy a chance to liberate our minds from inaccurate over-generalizations about our fellow human beings,” said Patty Limerick, faculty director and chair of the board of the Center of the American West.
At the Jan.15 performance, Limerick will read the heartfelt words of Kiara Chavez, a DACA recipient brought to the United States from Mexico by her mother at age four. Growing up, Chavez was unable to visit her sick grandparents in Mexico for fear of deportation. She couldn’t take advantage of other benefits given to her younger siblings who were born stateside. While she thrived academically and was accepted into top private high schools in Denver, she could not attend them because her undocumented status rendered her ineligible for financial aid.
“My co-readers are leaders in unleashing the full power of empathy to remind us of our common ground,” Limerick said.
While the upcoming performances will feature prominent members of the community reading the accounts of DACA recipients, previous performances have allowed the actual authors to relay their own experiences, bravely and vulnerably, under stage lights.
“At first I was fearful about how people would react, but the response we’ve received is completely different,” said Chavez, a graduate of University of Colorado who also serves as community development and marketing coordinator for Motus. “People say, ‘You’re so brave for sharing that’ or ‘I relate to you.’”
In May 2019, Chavez traveled to New York City to meet feminist icon Steinem and record an episode of “Shoebox Stories Podcast.” In the session, Steinem recounted the story of Chavez’s long-awaited plane trip to see her ailing grandparents in Mexico.
“It was the greatest feeling to end up in a room with her,” Chavez said. “It was like a euphoric experience. She gave me advice. Gloria cares about human rights of all beings. She comes from an era where human rights had to be elevated. It was mind blowing to hear her take on immigration. She told me, ‘you can be such a messenger for people in your shoes.’”
For Chavez, being submerged in this project is an experience she considers “uplifting” — one that has catapulted her own “personal growth.”
“So many of my friends are so deeply moved by seeing the performances in person.” Chavez said. “I feel like I’m really doing something for my community.
“I know from being a monologist, so many of us wanted to share our truth despite what’s being told in the media and what politicians reduce people down to as far as policies. I hope audiences get a deeper understanding of what the undocumented community is facing now.”
Musicians, such as renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, have lent their skills to the podcast to provide a soundtrack and the “Shoebox Stories Live” shows at the Dairy will feature live music by Robert Johnson, Adam Bodine and Elisa Garcia.
Even after the productions wrap and listeners have downloaded the podcasts, Motus encourages the conversation to continue with Shoebox Stories Community Readings — a toolkit that allows folks to incorporate insightful dialogue into their next dinner party or happy hour.
The “better than a book club” offering highlights the stories of four Colorado-based immigrant women living in sanctuary, and even comes with framed photos of the monologists. Residing inside an actual shoebox adorned with powerful quotes, such as “An enemy is someone whose story you haven’t heard,” the contents give participants an inside glimpse into the harrowing struggles and sacrifices these individuals faced. Suggested tips for discussion and reflection questions are also included.
“You don’t need to agree with every choice these women made,” Wilson said. “It’s more about civic hospitality — to stand in someone’s shoes. We have an opportunity to shift the national conversation.”
It’s fair to say, with Wilson’s family background, she was destined to carry on the legacy of helping others. Her mother, Marie Wilson, was founder and president emerita of the White House Project, executive director of the Ms. Foundation for Women and started the “Take Our Daughters to Work Day.”
Wilson’s father was the conductor of the largest children’s choral group in Iowa and set up a program in which kids in war-torn Bosnia could venture to the U.S. and participate in musical fellowship.
“We need to look at how we’re enforcing policies,” Wilson said. “It’s a human rights crisis.”
For Wilson and her team, it isn’t about focusing strictly on the political aspect of immigration, but rather allowing others to get to hear the diverse experiences of those local DREAMers that currently find themselves surrounded by uncertainty.
“Motus has amplified people whose stories are misrepresented or underrepresented in the media,” Wilson said. “It’s not about the most controversial subject. We rarely hear the stories of undocumented people, besides that of trauma at the border.”
Encouraging others to practice courageous empathy and challenging the often-blanketed concept of linking criminality with documentation status remains a high priority for Wilson.
“The complexities of policies are real,” said Wilson. “If you know people’s stories, you will have to think in more complex ways than just, ‘Go back to your country.’”
It’s her hope that getting these stories out there will cause a ripple effect when it comes to influencing future policies — on both a local and national scale.
“Motus can be of support to the potential election of people who want to make sure there’s a legislative action in 2021,” Wilson said.
In April, Motus Theater members will attend and perform at the Rural Youth Assembly’s Summit in McAllen, Texas — the same town where a Border Patrol holding facility has been identified for its extremely harsh conditions.
“We’re very committed to Boulder County and making change here, but we plan to travel to key areas of the country where it’s most important to talk about immigration.”
Other future destinations for Motus include Atlanta, Chicago and potentially New York.
“I look forward to telling the story of those who are too often voiceless when we make immigration policy decisions,” said John Tayer, president and CEO of the Boulder Chamber, who will participate in “Shoebox Stories” on Thursday. “I don’t know Victor Galvan, but it’s exciting to get to know him through his story and I like that we seem to share some similar personality traits, including our sense of humor.”
In celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, on Jan. 20, Motus will offer “JustUs” performances in which seven formerly incarcerated people of color will share their experiences.
“Everyone that works with Motus is incredibly courageous,” Wilson said. “They care about justice and the safety of multiple people more than just their own safety.”
Motus also plans to provide a future platform to American educators and members of Law Enforcement looking to share their experiences with journal-like entries to be read aloud.
“The immigration debate in our country tends to focus on abstract issues and negative stereotypes,” Tayer said. “However, the people it impacts each have a compelling personal story that our policy leaders need to hear. I relish this opportunity to help amplify those stories.”
If you go
What: Shoebox Stories Live
When: 7 p.m. Monday through Jan. 17
Where: Dairy Arts Center, Grace Gamm Theatre, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder
More info: motustheater.org