“How did we get here? How the hell…
Pan left - close on the steeple of the church.”
Jonathan Larson, “Halloween,” from Rent
The above lines popped into my head as I sat in an ice-cold dressing room in the basement of Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village just prior to curtain for the final performance of the world premiere run of Waterwell’s play The Courtroom. I was performing the role of the judge in the final scene who conducts a naturalization ceremony in which the journey of the protagonist, Elizabeth Keathley, through the immigration system ends with her becoming a U.S. citizen. The cast was comprised of stars of stage and screen, including a Tony Award winner, and a Tony nominee and Obie, Drama League, and Outer Critics Circle winner. “How did I get here?”
The Courtroom is the result of the inspired vision of Waterwell’s co-founder, Arian Moayed, himself a Tony-nominated Broadway actor who currently plays Stewie on the HBO hit Succession. A civic-minded theater company, Waterwell has staged musicals written during WW II aboard The Intrepid with a cast of actors and veterans, and a bilingual Farsi-English production of Hamlet set in 1918 Tehran. (Waterwell also runs an incredible educational program with New York City High School students, and its film division produces the Emmy-nominated web series The Accidental Wolf.)
An immigrant himself, Arian was moved by his own family history to respond to the present immigration climate, and took the unorthodox approach of seeking out actual immigration court transcripts to serve as the script. The production’s wonderful associate producer, Madelyn Murphy, quickly connected with Chicago immigration attorney Richard Hanus. He suggested the case of Elizabeth Keathley, whose path to a green card based on her marriage to a U.S. citizen was put in jeopardy over an innocent mistake regarding voter registration while applying for a driver’s license. Years later, Elizabeth prevailed on appeal to the 7th Cir. Court of Appeals in Keathley v. Holder, when Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook was persuaded by Hanus’s argument that the criminal common-law defense of entrapment by estoppel should apply in the immigration law context.
The script for the first act of The Courtroom is the verbatim transcript of Ms. Keathley’s immigration court proceedings in 2008. The script for the second act is the verbatim oral argument before the 7th Cir. and the panel’s written decision. So instead of a piece written by a playwright seeking to make a statement about our immigration system, one case plucked from that system was allowed to speak for itself. I had the pleasure of attending the first table read-through at Waterwell’s Manhattan offices. I remember Arian asking “Will this work as drama?” but he had a strong feeling that it would, and his instincts proved right.
What I found compelling about the case was that everyone involved in the immigration court hearing was respectful, professional, and thoughtful. After witnessing the complete immigration court hearing, the audience does not feel animosity towards the judge or ICE attorney. Nevertheless, the wrong result was reached. To me, an important theme is that of faith in an imperfect system - and not only the faith of the protagonist and her loving husband who are unexpectedly caught in a system they don’t understand, or of the brilliant lawyer who perseveres knowing that the correctness of his argument is no guarantee of a satisfying outcome. It also speaks to the faith that our justice system requires from society, a point I touched on in my stage remarks.
Waterwell’s managing director, Adam Frank, came up with the idea for a third act portraying Elizabeth’s naturalization ceremony. Adam told me the idea was inspired by his hearing Arian speak emotionally about his own naturalization, an experience that native-born Americans never have. So in the last act, the entire audience is naturalized. The role of the judge in that last scene was played by actual judges. My fellow former immigration judge, Betty Lamb, sitting immigration judge Mimi Tsankov, Magistrate Judge Sanket J. Bulsara of the Eastern District of New York, and myself took turns playing the role. And each of us were allowed to write our own remarks following the oath. This imbued each performance with a personalized view of the process in the words of actual judges who have performed these ceremonies in real life. My remarks are copied below.
I was first invited to perform at one of the two performances held inside the main courtroom of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse in lower Manhattan. (Other performances were held at Fordham Law School, St. Mark’s Church in the East Village, and Judson Church). For the courthouse performances, audience members had to have their names on a list, go through security, and check their cell phones at the door. I still can’t believe that I was fortunate enough to perform on the stage of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, a once in a lifetime experience. The courtroom held an energy unlike any of the other venues. The setting created the sense of watching an actual hearing in a real courtroom, without the usual sense of separation when sitting in the audience watching a play on a stage. As one of the actors pointed out, in the courtroom performances, when he read the line “please rise,” the whole audience rose to its feet without hesitation.
Ruthie Ann Miles, Kathleen Chalfant, Happy Anderson, Kristin Villanueva, Linda Powell, Michael Braun, Michael Bryan French, Mick Hilgers, and Hanna Cheek comprised the brilliant cast. Lee Sunday Evans’ inspired direction had to contend not only with the unorthodox nature of the script, but with the constantly changing layouts and acoustics over the four different venues. In the hands of these outstanding professionals, it all worked beautifully.
The real-life Keathleys and Richard Hanus traveled to New York and attended two of the performances, sitting in the audience just a few rows behind the actors portraying them.
I was left in awe of the talent and dedication of all involved; it was also without exception the warmest, kindest group of individuals I have ever had the privilege to be involved with. Thanks to all of them for briefly welcoming me into their world.
Here is a link to a New York Times’ article about the play.
My remarks from the naturalization ceremony:
“It is my great honor and pleasure to congratulate you all and address you for the first time as fellow citizens of the United States. Performing these ceremonies is undoubtedly the best part of my job. Judges have a number of powers, but none is greater or more humbling than the act we just performed together. Just a few minutes ago, you were citizens of many different countries. But by raising your hands and repeating an oath, you all instantly, almost magically, became citizens of the United States. To fully comprehend the significance of this, think back to the first time you ever heard of this country - maybe from a book or in a movie, or through a family friend or relative who was visiting from America. Imagine if you were told at that moment that you would be standing here today as an American citizen. Hopefully, that memory will capture the wonder of this great ceremony.
For some of you, the path to U.S. citizenship may have been short and without incident; others might have traveled a longer, more difficult road to arrive here today. Regardless, you should all be congratulated on reaching this most important milestone.
You should not feel a sense of loss today. American citizenship does not erase your past; to the contrary, it simply adds a new dimension to who you already are. We are a country of hyphenated Americans. Whether we are Mexican-American, African-American, Iranian-American, or Filipino-American, we should all wear our heritage as a source of pride, as the culture, thoughts and traditions that we bring to the American experience makes all of us richer.
There are of course responsibilities that come with citizenship. I’m going to mention two such responsibilities today. First, you have the responsibility to perform jury duty if called upon to do so. In a democracy, faith in our judicial institutions is paramount. However, our courts will not always reach the right result. But society will abide by judicial outcomes that they disagree with if they believe that the result was reached impartially by people who were genuinely trying to get it right. Abiding by judicial decisions is a key to democracy. It is what prevents angry mobs from taking justice into their own hands. In the words of Balzac, “to distrust the judiciary marks the beginning of the end of society.” To keep this public trust, we must all try our best every day to get it right. Your participation in this system as part of a jury of one’s peers, and your fairness in trying to reach the correct result under the law is crucial to this process.
The other responsibility I want to mention today is the responsibility to vote. As a U.S. citizen, your vote counts the same as that of anyone else, no matter how rich or powerful they may be. You should exercise that right by voting responsibly and often. No election is too small for you to exercise your right to vote. As Abraham Lincoln famously said in his Gettysburg Address, this is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. As of today, you all now share the responsibility for ensuring that those words remain true.
Once again, congratulations!”
Copyright 2019 Jeffrey S. Chase. All rights reserved.