Jeffrey Middleton is a self-described dyed-in-the-wool Democrat – a liberal with an offbeat sense of humor who has been “openly gay since birth.”
He also happens to be a middle-aged white man, making him perfect for the roles “1070 (We Were Strangers Once Too)” playwright and director James Garcia cast him in – perfect if you set aside his entire worldview. He plays characters based on former Senate President Russell Pearce, the anti-immigration bill’s sponsor, and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose unmatched popularity and election loss were both driven by his immigration enforcement tactics.
As the title suggests, Garcia’s production, housed at the Herberger Theater Center, revolves around the passage of Arizona’s SB1070, the immigration legislation that sparked international controversy after it was passed in April 2010. In a stroke of irony, Garcia said his show, which opened June 23 and runs through July 9, was produced in part by a grant funded by money from a settlement against Arpaio.
Middleton was tasked with portraying men he reviles even as he tries to get into their heads.
“I wanted to find the human side of them,” Middleton said, adding he doesn’t mind playing the “bad guys,” dubbed Senator King and Sheriff Romano. “I didn’t want to make them sympathetic, but I didn’t want to make them evil.
“There’s moments in the show where, especially Senator Pearce during the big monologue I have – he goes through a moment where he’s talking about his faith and what he believes and what he thinks is true… That’s what I want to portray.”
Middleton tried to meet Pearce to no avail. He thought even a phone call with the men he becomes on stage would help him understand how someone like Arpaio “gets up every morning and can look at himself in the mirror and not feel horrid for how he treats people.”
“I allow myself the opportunity to tell the story to the best of my ability…and then, I let it go,” Middleton said. “When I leave here, I go home and have a big ole glass of Scotch. I get rid of everything I had to say over the last hour and a half.”
In one scene between his Senator King and a staged reporter from the “lamestream liberal media,” Middleton talks about rounding up and shipping out “illegals” by the truckload.
As he leaves the stage, he hisses, “If you misquote me, I’ll sue the s**t out of you.”
He spits the line with venom at a young woman he genuinely adores in real life.
“We’re telling this story because it matters, and it will continue to matter until we kick those in the face who say it doesn’t matter,” he said before the first dress rehearsal, during which he stumbled ever so slightly over the threat. “As an activist, we all want to move the conversation forward.”
The law was billed as a tool for the state to battle illegal immigration, though elements like one derisively dubbed by opponents as the “papers please” provision led to accusations of racial bias. A lengthy court battle followed, and several of the bill’s key provisions were struck down while others remain in effect, including the provision requiring police to question someone’s immigration status during routine stops if there is suspicion to believe the person is in the country illegally.
Although the protests at the Capitol were loud and visual for the media, polls conducted immediately after the law’s passage showed it had majority support, with one poll showing that about 70 percent of voters backed the new law.
The story opens on the day the Arizona Legislature passed SB1070. A mixed-status family of five sits around the dinner table, debating whether to stay.
Miguel Avila, played by Juan Gomez, rises to unleash an anguished wail before declaring, “We have to go.”
The heroine Dulce Avila, played by Anna Flores, convinces her mostly undocumented family to stick it out. What follows is a rapid depiction of the real consequences families faced over years.
Dulce’s sister Viri, played by Valerie German, is deported and later trapped in a box under the watch of the violent and repugnant Deputy Garcia, played by Alex Sanchez Vega.
Dulce herself finds security in her Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status and joins the protest movement, eventually facing off against Sheriff Romano.
Like Middleton, Flores aesthetically made sense to play Dulce – she’s Latina, she’s the right age and she comes from a mixed-status family. But she has been challenged to “honor the crisis” at the heart of “1070.”
Flores is a citizen, separated by “a physical giant” from several brothers in Mexico. When SB1070 passed, she walked out of her high school and joined her first protest alongside thousands of others.
“Ever since then,” she said, “there’s no way not to be involved.”
Still, her activism has never forced her to muster the kind of bravery Dulce does.
“Being a character who is both undocumented and willing to come face to face with an officer, that’s a very hard reality to accept,” she said. “I have to sell that. I have to make the audience understand that Dulce Avila’s courage is so strong and her fear is so strong and her willingness to protect her family is so overwhelming that she’s willing to do that.”
In the midst of the Avila family’s woes, the production offers fleeting political scenes.
Former Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, whose career was catapulted by SB1070, appears as Governor Stewart, played by Sandra Williams. Williams presents the governor with a dose of absurdity, relaxing at Senator King’s desk as she defends her signing of the bill.
And a meeting of the “Arizona Business Association” plays out, focusing on the economic impact of boycotts leveled on the state, including one by the National Council of La Raza, the country’s largest Latino nonprofit advocacy organization.
Playwright Garcia said “1070” has been in his head for a long time, but its release now coincides with the NCLR returning to Phoenix for a convention. The show will run just across the street from where thousands of politically active Latinos will be gathered.
Beyond his “opportunistic” reasoning, though, Garcia said there was a need for his message now.
“The state went through 1070. Immigrants lived through that. Things had started to calm down,” he said. “Trump’s election has terrified the immigrant community to a whole new level because they understand that he is the most powerful man in America and the world.”