Millions of immigrants every year take a leap of faith, leaving their countries of origin spell-bound by the idea of the American Dream. Shortly after arriving though, they find out that the promised opportunity for freedom, prosperity and success through hard-work turns to be just that, hard work.
Noemi de la Puente, a play writer and daughter of immigrants, knows this ugly truth by experience. While a student at Princeton University, she was outraged by the true story of a Princeton undergraduate, Manuel, who was an undocumented immigrant child from the Dominican Republic.
He had overcome extreme poverty but due to his hard work and brilliant achievements, he had received a full scholarship to study at one of the prime universities in the country. Manuel continued to excel while in Princeton, winning in his senior year a scholarship to study classical Greek and Latin literature at Oxford University in the United Kingdom.
However, he could not leave the country because of his undocumented immigration status; so he turned himself into Homeland Security. The agency decided to deport him immediately.
“My disbelief and outrage at the preposterous and tragic situation of this student inspired me to write a musical comedy about illegal immigration called ‘Manuel versus The Statue of Liberty.’ This young man, who had received a scholarship given to the top senior in every graduating class, was not allowed a path to citizenship,” de la Puente told LIBizus.
The play writer debates with skepticism the US national ethos, the American Dream. “I thought the whole situation was ridiculous because this is the very type of person we want in our country – hard-working, smart, generous people,” she affirmed.
Manuel’s battle with the immigration system reminded her of her parents’ difficulties when immigrating from Spain and Argentina. They worked hard for their citizenship, and eventually achieved their legal status, even though it did very little to affect the biases they experienced as native Spanish speakers.
“It was difficult for me growing up in Los Angeles to see my parents poorly treated because of their immigrant status. Both of my parents were academically gifted as is the protagonist in our musical. The only container large enough for this epic struggle of boy versus country was a musical, and the only way I could stomach the tragedy and complexity of the immigration system was if it were a comedy, therefore I wrote it as a musical comedy,” de la Puente explained.
Manuel’s struggle is presented as a high-stakes boxing-match between the gifted student and The Statue of Liberty, the Diva of Democracy, a clear metaphor of the farce the American immigration system is today. A mix of Latin influences and other contemporary American pop music depict Manuel’s journey from poverty in New York City to the Ivy League higher education institution in the musical, which enthusiastically endorses the DREAM Act.
In 2014, the show won the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) Developmental Reading Series Award. “NYMF is one of the premier musical theatre festivals in the country so it was a great honor for me,” de la Puente said.
The award comes with a Next Link Production, in which NYMF offers artistic and logistical support to writer/producers. “As the producer, I am responsible for the entire production: the creative team, the cast, the designers, the backstage crew, the musicians, etc. As the writer, I am very pleased that the show has been embraced so heartily by this mainstream festival,” de la Puente explained.
The show will be presented in New York City at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre –part of the Signature Theatre Center– from July 21 to 27 of this year.
“In order to produce this show to the off-Broadway standards of NYMF, I need to raise approximately $66,000. Most of the funds will go to pay the top-level artists I am engaging in this project,” de la Puente shared. “I am working hard at fundraising, rewriting, and assembling the creative team.”
De la Puente believes this is a huge opportunity for her as a Latina writer in the musical theatre world. “We are underrepresented in musical theatre, and NYMF has given my work a significant endorsement. I am extremely happy to work with director Jose Sayas, and collaborating with composer David Davila on this project. David not only brings extensive experience and love of musical theatre to the process but in addition, he has a visceral understanding of the DREAM Act, having lived most of his live on the Texas-Mexico border near McAllen,” she explained.
Her awarded work includes “Generic Hispanic,” which became finalist at MultiStages New Works contest 2012, and was produced at the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre (PRTT) as part of the InSight Series 2008); “Manuel vs. the Statue of Liberty,” the winner of the 2014 NYMF Developmental Reading Series Award, Official 2015 NYMF Next Link Project; “The Revenge of Suicide Jack” in development at the Dramatic Question Theatre; “Lightning Strikes Twice,” a 10-minute musical produced in English at the Huron Club, Soho Playhouse, and in Spanish at the Microteatro in Caracas, Venezuela.
A member of the Professional Playwrights Unit at PRTT between 2004 and 2012, her Solo show “Fountain of Youth” was developed and produced through the Carolinian Shakespeare Festival, the PRTT, and was a Dramatic Question Theatre (DQT) production at Theatre 3 in 2013. She is a founding member of DQT, a collective of playwrights that develop multicultural works, and challenge the traditional race/gender barrier of professional playwriting as practiced in America today.
De la Puente received her MFA in Theatre Arts from the University of Iowa (Patricia Roberts Harris Scholarship), MSE Princeton University, and BSE Caltech.