By Jessica Carmona, Olivia O Librettist & Lyricist
Art & Stories
As an Artist, my work says that I am someone who cares deeply about people who suffer and struggle, and my work also says that I am someone deeply concerned with finding solutions to social problems such as racism, inequality, oppression and brokenness.
I have always been inspired to create stories that speak to the struggle of oppressed groups and communities, and to offer messages of hope and solidarity with those groups.
Seeds of Activism Planted Early
Coming from a family of Educators and Activists, the seeds of social justice activism were planted very early on in my life.
I grew up in a Christian Puerto Rican household in upstate New York and was inspired by my parent’s activism around Puerto Rican Independence and Latino Rights.
My father worked in the Prison Ministry for several years, and he instilled in me the values of leadership and caring for those in society who were neglected, underrepresented or oppressed.
It’s no wonder then, that as I was studying Acting, Playwriting and Dance at NYU that this passion for social justice and the drive to speak up for the oppressed deeply influenced my artistic practice.
I use my Faith as a framework to understanding society, and the characters in my world.
I am trying to bring to life stories of healing, redemption, self empowerment, community
building, hope and love.
Social Justice & Human Rights
Throughout and after my college education at NYU, I was very engaged with social justice and human rights movements.
In particular, I was involved with Anti-Racist, Anti-Police Brutality and Immigrant Rights movements.
After college, I began to work closely with the Undocumented Immigrant Community here in New York City, first as an Activist and then as an Educator.
I have been an ESL Teacher for over 10 years in Brooklyn, NY and I have been able to build strong relationships and friendships within this community during that time. I have witnessed first hand the daily life of this community and the struggles they go through trying to survive in this country.
Elvira - The Immigration Play
My first complete play was a project inspired by an undocumented Latina woman in Chicago who had taken sanctuary in a storefront church to avoid being deported and separated from her US CItizen son.
For a deeper background for that play, I interviewed many of my ESL students and learned a lot about the dangerous trip many immigrants take to get to the US. I was committed to telling the stories as accurately and as authentically as possible, without sacrificing their identities and culture.
I learned so much about how they leave their homes to escape poverty, gang violence and other forms of struggle. They often leave family behind in hopes of being reunited with them in the future. That play was Elvira-The Immigration Play, which I toured in several cities and college campuses across the country.
Exploring People in Conflict
One very powerful memory I have is when my ESL class came to the NYC Fringe Festival to see Elvira - The Immigration Play.
For that play, I also wanted to set up a scenario where two sides of the issue were forced to be in the same room together and hear each other for the first time.
To that end, I created an Interrogation Room scene, where the central character (Elvira) is alone in an Interrogation Room with a White ICE Officer, who is preparing her paperwork for deportation. I structured the entire play around that framework, and then using flashbacks, humor and metaphors from nature, I presented a situation where the two people were able to see each other and really hear each other for the first time.
In many of my plays, I have introduced scenarios where people in conflict are unwillingly stuck in a place where they must come face to face with those people they fear or dislike the most. I explore the many possible ways that healing, understanding, forgiveness, compasion, change can occur between two or more people, in the most unlikely of ways, and how that can be a stimulator for larger scale change.
"I wanted so much to counter the narrative ..."
Loving theater as much as I do, and at the same time being committed to contributing to positive social change, I was frustrated to see how few plays were being produced that told the stories of these oppressed groups.
I attended many Broadway musicals, plays and concerts, and though I loved them, I also wanted to see more of “my people” on stage. I wanted to see stories of members of my community portrayed . I wanted to see stories of Activists who had dedicated their lives to changing the world. These were my heroes, my inspirations.
I wanted to see more stories of immigrants working, fighting to make it here and determined to contribute to this country. I wanted so much to counter the narrative being promoted by Donald Trump and his supporters of the immigrant as rapists, criminals, etc. I wanted the world to know about the undocumented and documented immigrants that I knew so well and worked with so closely for so long. Hard working people who came to practice English after working a 15 hour day as a home attendant, a cleaner, a construction worker.
Oftentimes, they brought their children with them to class because they could not afford a babysitter and did not want to miss class. They invited me to their children’s birthday parties, to July 4th barbecues, to baptisms. They were working hard and contributing. Once I even posted on social media for Trump to come to my community, my class and get to know the people I work with. I wanted to challenge him.
Inspiration! Ragtime, In The Heights, Mojada ...
I have seen very few plays or musicals that told these stories of this specific community I speak of. Any artwork that shows the beauty of the Latino cultures, but also the discrimination they face. The danger that they escape. One of my favorite musicals of
all time, Ragtime, does a great job of including immigrant stories of Jewish immigrants at the beginning of the century. I would love to have Latino immigrant stories portrayed
in a similar way.
Another one of my favorite musicals: In the Heights by the amazing Lin Manuel Miranda is a beautiful and powerful musical that represents his Latino community in Washington Heights. One notable exception would have to be the play “Mojada” by Luis Alfaro, which is a powerful and beautiful play that really represents the terrible journey that immigrants face. His play depicted the horrors of rape, abuse, fear. He masterfully and skillfully wrote a modern day adaptation of the Greek Tragedy Medea, and renamed it “Mojada”, which means “wetback.” I draw inspiration from this play.
And at the same time, working with the undocumented community, I longed for a musical or a play that specifically spoke to the intentional separation of families, the breaking up of the family unit because of immigration raids and locking children up in
detention centers, and how this impacts us as a community.
Although as a Puerto Rican woman I am a US Citizen, I share a common language and similar cultural traditions with this community. We also share a common history,
although with some differences. The history of the Puerto Rican people immigrating to the US demonstrates that we also faced years of discrimination and exploitation when
we arrived in this country, although we didn't have to cross a desert or a river.
My parents overcame many obstacles and worked twice as hard to get their education, to get a good job, to buy a home and raise 3 children. None of it came easy, and they were faced with institutionalized racism and rejection all along the way. Because of that, I see myself in the immigrant struggle. I see their struggle to get meaningful work, raise their children, live a decent life without fear as my own as well.
A very thin line of political, economic and geographic convenience separates me and my fellow Puerto Ricans from immigrants from other Latin American countries. It was a
matter of political convenience and geographic interests that motivated the US to make Puerto Ricans US Citizens during a time of war when they needed more soldiers to fight in their war. The geographical location of the island provided a convenient place for the
US military to practice bombing, and a place to provide tax free business incentives for emerging US businesses to prosper. Apart from that, I see us as all the same. Latinos
"We will continue to develop this musical to be the best it can be."
When I read the first draft of Olivia O the Musical, I was really inspired and
excited! It was the first sign of fellow musical theater artists wanting to develop a musical that told the story of a Latina Immigrant escaping violence and poverty. The lead character is Latina, a woman!
It is not a musical about a group of “white saviors” fighting the good fight. It is about Latino people facing up to oppression and fighting for their rights to live and survive in the country. The libretto does not portray White people as the “heroes” or as superior to Latios in any way. If anything, it points to the foolishness and corruption of certain White people.
The musical is not afraid to point out the horrors of the US Immigration system and how we have failed this community. The musical is not anti-US. It celebrates those US citizens who are participating in and contributing to the movement to create fair immigration policies.
I was invited to join this team as Co-Lyricist and also to help with translation. Later, as our professional relationship deepened,I was invited on as Co-Librettist. I am now
co-writing the entire book with Diane Currie-Sam.
I am glad to be a part of a multiracial team of Artists based in Vancouver, Canada to work on this musical. I strongly believe that Latinos should play a central role in telling our stories, and I also firmly believe that finding solutions to our struggles must be a process that involves partnering and collaborating with people from different backgrounds fighting for the same thing. I do not believe we help each other or our
struggle as Latinos when we separate ourselves from White and Jewish allies who want to see us succeed.
I am really proud of the musical we have developed, and I am really excited to continue
to develop this musical even more. We have continued to collaborate on songs and book and will continue to develop this musical to the best it can be.
Our goal is to have people leave the show wanting to know how they can contribute to the movement for Immigrant Rights. We plan to have tables set up outside after each performance with books, articles, DVD’s and more about Immigrant Rights and
Immigrant Rights Activism.
I hope that you will consider supporting this musical.
Olivia O, The Musical