‘Just Like Us’ uses a bilingual script to put immigration issues on stage

The cast of “Just Like Us” | Courtesy of Brenda Marie Moran

Recently, stories of immigration troubles dominate the news, including undocumented students and workers as well as people being removed from their homes and torn from their loved ones.

Starting Thursday, March 14, the story four latinx students — two of whom are undocumented — will come to the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts when Teatro Tercera Llamada and Looking for Lilith Theatre Co. present a co-production of Karen Zacarías’ “Just Like Us.” The play uses a bilingual script.

Insider spoke with Brenda Marie Moran, who plays one of those students, as well as Haydee Canovas, TTL producer and co-founder, and Kathi E.B. Ellis, director of this production and co-artistic director of Lilith.

Brenda Marie Moran

For Moran, “Just Like Us” is an extension of her work in Latinx rights.

“I think it’s another form of being an advocate, because you’re also telling the story of other people,” she says. “You’re not just lobbying or rallying, you’re telling a story through theater.”

Theater wasn’t Moran’s focus until recently. An international studies major at Northern Kentucky University, she’s minoring in Spanish, fine-tuning and understanding the language of her culture and her family. Her parents moved to Louisville from Hidalgo, Mexico, just before she was born.

For her minor, she had to take an acting class in Spanish, but she had no intention of being in plays at NKU.

“The professor for the Hispanic drama class and the director of the World Languages department, they reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, we’ve seen you act for your final (for Spanish drama), why don’t you audition?’” says Moran.

She was similarly recruited by Lilith and TTL.

“The director, Kathi Ellis, and Haydee Canovas, both of them went to see me at NKU and apparently that was my audition.”

Moran isn’t likely to change her major — in fact she graduates this year — but she wants to continue doing plays, especially those that speak to the issues facing the Latinx community.

“I want to make sure that all the plays I get into are some kind of specifically Latino play,” she says. “I found out about this play, and it has to do with my life — everything I’ve done, my upbringing, everything I’ve gone through. I guess as a Latina living in the United States, it does mean a lot to me.”

Haydee Canovas

Canovas stresses the importance of the social issues at play on stage and what it means for the Latinx community.

“You don’t realize how important this story is for us,” she says. “This play is based on real lives … It goes over all the dilemmas of the culture and what the culture values, their desires and how some of them are being labeled criminals because they lack documents.”

She also corrects what she believes is a common misconception about the legal status of undocumented immigrants.

“That’s not a criminal offense. It’s a civil offense,” Canovas says.

Social justice gets addressed on stage in “Just Like Us,” but an extra-textual social justice issue comes with the play. Lilith and TTL knew they wanted to tackle onstage representation for the Latinx community, as well as representation behind the scenes.

Ellis agrees that Lilith was very intentional in this partnership and how they interacted with the theatrical presentation of these issues.

Kathi E.B. Ellis

“It was important to Lilith in choosing to produce this script that we partner with artists who can help us to tell the story authentically,” the director says.

As individual artists, members of TTL, Louisville’s Spanish-speaking theater company, have worked with Lilith for several years. So there were prior relationships to help create an official connection.

In addition to concerns about authenticity, Canovas explains there are logistical reasons for the co-production as well.  

“This show is like a monster of a show because it has so many actors and so many characters … (and) Kathy is the mastermind,” she says. “I don’t know if you know this, but she is a mastermind. And she said, ‘What do you think if we do a co-production?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s a no-brainer.’”

The “monster” of a show includes actors who have to play multiple roles. That’s not too uncommon. What is a little more out of the ordinary is that those actors have to play characters in two different languages. All of the actors — half of whom are Latinx, half of whom are white — play characters who are Latinx and white in attempt to truly reinforce the themes of the play.

Whatever ethnicity we claim as our own, the people around us, the myriad of other ethnicities found in Americas citizenry, are just like us.

“Just Like Us” runs March 14-16, 18 and 21-23 at 7:30 p.m., and March 24 at 5:30 p.m. at the Kentucky Center. Tickets are $21 for general admission, or $16 for seniors, students and military. And on Monday, March 18, all ticket prices are $11. 

This post has been updated with the correct date for the $11 tickets.