When Ila Lavont asked the immigrant students in her adult school class to write about their experiences coming to this country, she didn't foresee the eloquence or the quiet drama that would result.
"When I began to read the words, they were so true," said Lavont, a teacher at Evans Community Adult School. "It wasn't overblown. It wasn't Hollywood. It was real. And the reality so struck me that I thought I had to share this with others."
After a few months of crafting, Lavont's 26 students have turned their words into a play, "The Immigrants," which they will perform this week for faculty and students.
Lavont said getting the stories from the students' minds to the page wasn't easy. At first, a few students turned in short, self-conscious sentences. Then she introduced them to Latino and Vietnamese literature. To ease their inhibitions, she taught them stream-of-consciousness writing, telling them not to worry about grammar.
"They then began to share their own stories," said Lavont, who teaches the advanced English class five days a week. "The writing quadrupled. Everybody wanted to write. Everybody wanted to talk."
The play is simple, a few dramatic scenes joined by students sharing personal stories about the day they decided to leave their home country; the trip to the United States; the reality of an immigrant's life, and the future.
But its stories are strong, sometimes bringing the actors to tears and receiving hearty applause from rehearsal audiences.
In one scene, Hang Ngo Chhuo, a 45-year-old immigrant born in Cambodia, sings, "Don't Ask Me Where I'm From," a Chinese song describing a person's travels. After each refrain from Chhuo, another student reads the song's words in English.
"I was born in Cambodia, but after the civil war in 1971, I went to Hong Kong and moved around a lot," said Chhuo after a rehearsal, explaining why she relates to the song.
In another act, Deogratias Kheba, 37, of Zaire, told of saying goodby to his parents at the airport. Kheba, who emigrated last year, said it took him six years to save for the air fare.
"We took some pictures," Kheba said to the audience of his last day in Zaire. "Everybody cried except my mother. She is very old and tired. I took a picture with her. It may be the last one."
Kheba said although writing of his experience was difficult, he eventually came to appreciate Lavont's efforts at drawing the words from the students.
"It was so hard, but the teacher, she shared our pain," Kheba said. "We were crying together. When we began to write we didn't think about a play. We were just writing. We just wrote and wrote."
During the play's most dramatic scene, three immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexican border into California are arrested by two mean-spirited border guards. One gun-toting guard threatens to kill one of the migrants if he doesn't give up the name of his coyote, or smuggler. The guard then goes on to proposition a woman migrant, who slaps him in response.
Martha Franco, 25, who acts as the play's narrator, said the scene was inspired by the real-life experiences of a friend. Franco, who came from Mexico with her family, said she has encountered prejudice in her new country, but feels the opportunities here make up for it.
"Since I was a child, I've liked this country," said Franco, who works as a waitress at night and attends the English class every weekday. "California is beautiful."
In fact, despite the inherent struggles of moving to a new country, the students' play ends with each telling of their plans for the future.
"This country gave me an opportunity," said a student from Mexico. "I have a green card. My next step is to learn English better. Then I will become a citizen."
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