CARLA - I want to sleep in the car tonight…
BONNIE JOHNSON - Carla -
CARLA - With Miguel and the kids. We’re going to drive out in the corn fields.
BONNIE JOHNSON - Don’t be stupid. You’ll freeze.
CARLA - I bought extra blankets.
BONNIE JOHNSON - Sleep here.
CARLA - It’s not safe here. They would look here first.
From: “A Good Farmer” by Sharyn Rothstein
Two women are talking, a small farmer and one of her employees. They’re also friends. Immigration officers have just raided a nearby farm, and they’re scared. Sharyn Rothstein’s play “A Good Farmer” is set in a small town in upstate New York. It’s a study in friendship, paranoia and competing loyalties that’s looking for the human experience behind the kind of big issues that fill our daily news feed.
Sharyn Rothstein is an award-winning playwright (“By the Water,” “All the Days”) and a staff writer for the USA Network series “Suits.” She wrote “A Good Farmer” about 10 years ago after reading an article about a small town where tensions between locals and immigrant farm workers were erupting. You can read more about that here, in a blog Sharyn wrote for the New Jersey Theatre Alliance.
The American Theater Group, SOPAC’s resident theatre company, has a new production of “A Good Farmer” opening January 24, 2018. If anything, the play is timelier than it was 10 years ago, as immigration has become an even more divisive issue.
“The audience is going to bring a very different experience to the play,” said Rothstein when I spoke to her last week during rehearsal. “And I think they’re going to hear it differently than they would have in the past. But I was never interested in writing a polemic, and I was never interested in making this about politics, per se. For me, it’s about the human relationships and the idea of community.”
Putting a human face on big issues can be a cathartic experience on stage. Rothstein’s characters avoid stereotypes – they’re real people, with backstories that complicate things. I sat in on rehearsal at SOPAC last week.
Director Kel Haney was running through two scenes, both taking place in Bonnie’s kitchen. Bonnie (Ariel Woodiwiss) is the farmer, a woman running a business by herself after the death of her husband. She’s listening to music and cooking after a hard day when there’s a knock on the door. As Bonnie answers, you see her guard go up. It’s Gabe (Todd Lawson), a local who’s been down on his luck. Suffice it to say that Bonnie and Gabe have some bad history, yet Gabe has come to ask for – practically demand – a job on her farm. It doesn’t go well. The scene ends with a veiled threat from Gabe about the “illegals” who work for Bonnie.
The next scene also starts with a knock on the door. This time, it’s Bonnie’s employee, Carla (Janice Amaya). Bonnie greets her warmly, offers her tea, then whiskey. It becomes clear they trust each other, based on a history of shared experiences and tough times. Carla jokes about harvesting the cabbage, but, as an undocumented worker, she’s basically terrified she’ll be the next one deported. Bonnie moves back and forth between concern for her farm and concern for her friend.
As the director worked with the cast, deciding where one would lean, which way the door should open, and on subtler aspects of delivery and tone, the characters were becoming believable and true. Watching, I couldn’t help but think how strange and sad it is that we’re living in a country where people, in some cases our friends or co-workers, are driven to hide in fields and church basements. “A Good Farmer” was telling a story where choices were being made, and people’s lives changing. I wanted to see what happened next, but my time in rehearsal was up.
Immigration is a big, complicated issue. As a playwright, Rothstein doesn’t pretend to have the answer. But, she says, “I do know that everyone on all sides is a human being and that we’re never going to get anywhere until we recognize their humanity and act from that place. And that is my hope for this play, that it allows people a window into that.
“A Good Farmer” opened January 24, with performances through February 4. After the January 28 matinee, there will be a panel discussion: “The Immigrant Experience: Escaping the Shadows,” with a noted immigration attorney, a “dreamer” and others joining the playwright.
Written by Sharyn Rothstein, directed by Kel Haney and featuring Janice Amaya, Todd Lawson, Brenda Withers and Ariel Woodiwiss, “A Good Farmer” is a production of the American Theater Group, South Orange Performing Arts Center’s theatre company in-residence. For tickets and more information, visit www.sopacnow.org.