Book Review, Current Issue, Vol 29 no. 1

Performance, Identity, and Immigration Law

Performance, Identity, and Immigration Law: A Theatre of Undocumentedness. By Gad Guterman. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014; Pp. 236.

Written in 2014, Performance, Identity, and Immigration is a timely addition to the intersecting discourses of performance studies and immigration identity formations, particularly given the rhetoric of the 2016 presidential race in the United States. Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, launched his presidential campaign by claiming that immigrants from Mexico (as well as Central and South America, and the Middle East) were drug smugglers, rapists, and generic criminals. While Trump’s speech was criticized by many across the political spectrum, he was able to secure the Republican nomination—in part—by reiterating the long-dominant narrative that promotes the criminality of “illegal aliens.” Gad Guterman’s work serves as a valuable intervention against such rhetoric through his critical analysis of the interwoven fields of performance studies and immigration law, and his introduction of “undocumentedness.”

For Guterman, “undocumentedness” moves the discourse away from the dehumanizing and highly contentious term of “illegal alien,” which serves as a performative descriptive, and focuses on the structural circumstances under which undocumented immigrants must live (2). But Guterman continues to strategically rely on terms such as “illegal” and “alien” to “remind us that law constructs categories that contribute to the building of identities” (3). This serves as his thesis as he studies the intersection of performance, immigration law, and identity. Through this critical lens, Guterman examines the performances and plays of Culture Clash, Carlo Albán, Genny Lim, Josefina López, Lisa Loomer, Milcha Sánchez-Scott, Guillermo Reyes, Janet Noble, Ntare Mwine, and Yussef El Guindi, among others, and explores how the power of the law shapes identity and “the practice of belonging” as “undocumentedness forges ways of being, seeing, and existing” (9). The plays discussed and Guterman’s analyses offer inroads to examining our own legal consciousness by positioning us to examine our understanding and use of the law in our everyday lives.

Guterman organizes his analysis following the framework of the Immigration and Nationality Act in an attempt to better reflect the ways the US immigration laws operate to “define and constrain both individual and collective identity” (10). Chapter 1, which serves as his introduction, is entitled Act § 237 (a)(1)(B)—Present in Violation of the Law” and focuses on the impossible subject and the performative act of self-erasure by the undocumented as a strategy for inclusion and invisibility. In chapter 2, entitled “Act § 275(a)—Improper Entry by Alien,” Guterman examines what he terms “border scenarios” (after Diana Taylor) as embodied asymmetrical power exchanges between the entrant and border monitor that perform and construct the very borders being policed. Chapter 3, “Act § 274A—Unlawful Employment of Aliens,” interrogates the inseparable dyad of the undocumented domestic worker and the privileged employer while examining legal nonexistence’s impact on exploitation and worker rights. In chapter 4’s “Act §212(a)(9)(B)(iii)(III)—Family Unity,” Guterman explores the legal construction of the family unit through heteronormative paradigms that simultaneously patrol “counterhegemonic lifestyles” (101). Guterman investigates the heightened criminality of undocumentedness (and also documentedness of color) in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terror attacks and the implementation of the USA PATRIOT Act in chapter 5, labeled, “Act § 331—Alien Enemies.” In his final chapter, entitled “Act § 505—Appeals,” Guterman challenges his own assessment concerning how US law shapes individual and communal identities through self-erasure and redirects the flow of how “illegal” identities contribute to the shaping of the US through the hyper-visible performances of the Disney- and Sesame Street-inspired characters in Times Square.

In each chapter, Guterman uses dramatic works and performances to assist in his analysis of the various statutes and laws, submitting that these performances —and performative practices represented within the theatre pieces—demonstrate how immigration laws shape individual and communal identities. Each chapter offers cogent and clear examinations of the theatre pieces and the various laws the plays are in communication with (whether consciously or not). For Guterman, theatre offers opportunities to shape and change the perceptions of undocumentedness by making visible what is often rendered invisible. In doing so, it helps to reshape the legal consciousness of the nation towards the undocumented.

Although celebratory in the promise that theatre can serve as a space for constructive and meaningful change, Guterman challenges theatre companies who inadvertently practice invisibility even as they perform visibility. Guterman draws attention to the fact that plays such as Sánchez-Scott’s Latina, Loomer’s Living Out, and Solis’s Lydia highlight the plight of the domestic workers and their lack of rights, but are played to dominantly white, privileged audiences. Dubbing it “undocumentedface,” theatre practitioners participate in the continuing exclusion and rendering invisible the very people that are represented on stage by not reaching out and making theatre available to them. Dehumanization is not simply an attribute that works on the surface, but rather is internalized by the undocumented through the external forces of law and power. Having undocumentedness made visible for general audiences allows for empathetic connections, but for the undocumented it allows for a sense of empowerment and humanization. Guterman recognizes that it is not feasible or practical for the undocumented, who rely on invisibility to escape incarceration and deportation, to perform their stories on stage themselves, but to see their narratives performed before them works towards those forced to live in the shadows to recognize themselves—and their humanity—under the lights.

Gad Guterman’s Performance, Identity, and Immigration Law: A Theatre of Undocumentedness is a valuable contribution to the field of performance studies and legal practices on identity formation. Examinations of performance and the law have long informed sexual and race identity discourses, but Guterman’s project delves into the under-examined area of the undocumented. While many of the examples within Performance, Identity, and Immigration Law focus on Latina/o theatre, it is by no means the only section of the undocumentedness explored in the book. Although the impact of the law on bodies differs in various communities based on race and gender, Guterman effectively demonstrates how the law dehumanizes and criminalizes immigrants, turning them into impossible subjects.

Raimondo Genna
University of South Dakota


The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 29, Number 1 (Fall 2016/Winter 2017)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2017 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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