A teen grows up in the ICE age at Children's Theatre's 'I Come From Arizona'

Dan Norman Photography

Dan Norman Photography

The titular phrase “I come from Arizona” is what Gabi’s parents tell her to say whenever anyone asks about her background. There’s much more to the family history, but Gabi’s parents have been avoiding that conversation with their daughter.

I Come From Arizona

Children's Theatre Company

They can’t keep the secret forever.

The Children’s Theatre Company is now staging the world premiere of playwright Carlos Murillo’s urgent story about a Mexican-American teenager coming of age in terrifying times. Murillo conducted extensive research in the Chicago community where I Come from Arizona is set, and the result is a script that squarely addresses the realities facing families like Gabi’s in 2018.

As the play opens, Gabi (Ayssette Muñoz) finds her papi (Ricardo Vázquez) leaving on a trip. He’s going to visit his own dying father, but Gabi and her younger brother, Jesús (Luca La Hoz Calassara), get mixed messages regarding their grandfather’s exact location.

Their father’s absence forces their mother (Nora Montañez) to work extra hours, leaving Gabi tasked with caring for her brother.

The stresses continue to pile up when Gabi gets to school, where she’s forced to debate her white classmate Fiona (Madison Neal) over the merits of our would-be border wall. Their peer Ricardo (Antonio De La Vega) is awkwardly enthusiastic in befriending Gabi, but he can’t help with her toughest assignment: getting her mom to talk about the family’s origins.

It’s a tough situation, and director Lisa Portes amps up the tension in a pair of terrifying, surreal fantasy sequences playing on Jesús’ confused fears about the “ICE cream” truck. The anxiety-ridden production is a two-hour cry of pain and frustration at an immigration policy that threatens families like Gabi’s with separation or worse. A supportive neighbor (Shá Cage) assures Gabi that a human being can’t be illegal, but she can’t honestly tell Gabi her parents’ fears are unfounded.

Middle-graders and tweens will find it easy to understand Gabi’s challenges, which are clearly drawn although they address complex issues. Murillo has a nice ear for the logic of a kid like Jesús, who’s constantly asking his sister to make pinky-promises she knows she’ll have a hard time keeping. The dialogue flows between English and Spanish in a manner that communicates similar meaning in both languages; it’s a nice alternative to subtitles.

Although there are moments of humor, I Come From Arizona focuses squarely on the darkly dystopian aspects of today’s immigrant experience. It will certainly be an eye-opener for kids like the character Fiona, who parrots what she’s heard about Mexicans breaking laws and stealing jobs until she sees that her words are hurtful to Gabi—not a caricatured concept, but an actual person. Her friend.