As immigration fills the news and Seattle’s designation as a “sanctuary city” stirs a national conversation, Dramatists Guild member and attorney Margaret O’Donnell (Global Law Advocates) used her background to create an immersive theatrical experience to educate the public on the realities of the immigration courtroom in a project called The Detention Lottery.
Margaret O’Donnell has represented undocumented immigrants since 1985 and many more in family-based, asylum, and crime victim petitions. She stated that the vast majority of those in removal proceedings are there not because they’ve committed a crime, but simply because they’ve come to the attention of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
For years, Margaret explained immigration law and the need for reform to community and church groups through PowerPoint presentations, weekly blogs, radio shows, panel discussions, and more. She wryly noted that rather than spur listeners to action, the labyrinth of procedures, statistics, and numbers often overwhelmed her audiences into a stupor.
In 2011, she created a set of instructions and materials for a church immigrant justice group in Seattle. This unscripted event was called The Detention Game. But in 2014, she took a playwriting class and discovered her love for the written art form. She decided to formalize The Detention Game and make it more accessible. She invited several other Seattle immigration attorneys to join her in writing detailed legal profiles for eight specific kinds of cases and immigrants and scripted The Detention Lottery around the arrest and court procedures for each. She then recruited six more attorneys to perform in the pilot presentation at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle. Social service, church, community, government, and education leaders were invited to this fateful Friday afternoon in June 2018.
Eight audience members were randomly detained upon trying to gain entry to the theatre, while the rest of the audience became the courtroom observers. Identities were assigned to the “detainees” and they had to defend themselves against deportation as best they could before a judge in a mock court. Margaret was clear that the enforcement and court system details in the play were accurate and reflected current law and practice.
If you’re reading this and a gnawing anxiety has engaged itself in the pit of your stomach over what you would say if you were picked, even that visceral confusion is accurate. Public defenders are not available to undocumented immigrants and over 84 percent of those detained do not have lawyers to represent them or even explain the process (although in this show, attorneys counseled four of the “detained” audience members. The other four were left to struggle through).
At the end of the performance, audience members were given a one-page list of all the ways they could get involved. Margaret noted that people were fired up to take action in a way she never saw after her PowerPoint presentations.
“The audiences, seated in the courtroom, have an emotional reaction to seeing a confused detainee try to represent themselves in immigration proceedings. Theatre knocks down the barriers we think we have between us and those depicted on stage. It’s no longer theoretical,” Margaret stated.
The show was such a success, it has already been produced two more times. An expanded version, which completely immerses the audience in both the courtroom and the detention center, is being workshopped in May 2019 with a professional production slated for the fall.
So often, complex issues can overwhelm people. But as playwrights, we have the unique ability to open doors to complicated worlds and make them accessible. Margaret hopes that attorneys and actors nationwide will host The Detention Lottery in their city, and use theatre as an educational tool to inform, inspire, and engage. She has made the script and all production materials available for free non-commercial use with a Creative Commons license. Materials and more information can be found here.