Fans of HBO’s Succession might be surprised that Stewy, the conniving cocaine-snorting private equity operator, is played by an emigré from Iran who co-founded a civic-minded theater company that teaches drama to public school students at New York’s Professional Performing Arts School. Its graduates have gone on to Juilliard and Yale.
The Courtroom is the latest project by Arian Moayed and his company, Waterwell. Created from courtroom transcripts that Moayed edited, the play concerns a recent Filipino immigrant named Elizabeth Keathley (Kristin Villanueva) who, while getting a driver’s license, illegally registers to vote at the behest of a careless government bureaucrat. Issued a voter registration card, she votes in a congressional election and faces deportation.
The drama, all verbatim from the court proceedings, wraps up a short New York run tonight at Judson Memorial Church. It’s directed by Lee Sunday Evans, Waterwell’s new artistic director, with a cast that includes Ruthie Ann Miles and Kathleen Chalfant.
Speaking at Waterwell’s midtown office, Moayed, 38, said he expects The Courtroom to have a further life around the country. The re-enactment of deportation proceedings is grim. But the production eventually becomes uplifting in what it says about the U.S. and the role of immigrants. “I have been rejuvenated with hope,” retired U.S. Air Force Col. Mike Harasimowicz wrote to Moayed, who was nominated for a Tony Award for acting in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. “Thank you for that journey tonight.”
Q: How did The Courtroom come about?
Moayed: I was in Chicago doing a show this summer and the news about all the stuff happening at the border was heartbreaking to me and my family. And I said, ‘let’s find as many deportation cases as we can find.’ I wanted to see what they’re like.
Q: Were the reports about the children the catalyst?
Moayed: My mom was the catalyst. She loves America more than all of us combined. Her vision of a land of opportunity was broken at that moment. And I saw that. And I needed to do something about that. To remind people that though we are in a valley it’s still a country that has major opportunities for people.
A lot of people don’t understand what it’s like to be an immigrant. We are very, very regular. We’re just trying to make ends meet and do all the things every other person is trying to do. But we don’t know the language and all the rules and regulations. What happened to Elizabeth Keathley in this case has probably happened to my family dozens of times. A miscommunication of something that is so simple. Imagine if you and your loved ones had to pick up your lives and go to China and live in a city you don’t know with a new script and new ways of doing things. Coming over here is a messy process.
Q: Is the play an appeal for more humanity from the government?
Moayed: I can’t do anything about the government, yet. I want to inform people, that this is what immigrants go through. I also empathize with the law. As an American, I believe what makes this country different from many others is that we are a land of laws. Ruthie Ann’s character [an immigration judge] seems like a tough cookie but at the end of the day, she says, ‘I get what you’re saying. But the law says this is as far as I can go. Help me figure out the way.’ Watching the law work on itself was very moving for me.
Q: Is this case finding hope in horror?
Moayed: An amazing judge, Dana Leigh Marks, has this line about the incredibly overburdened immigration court system: ‘It’s death penalty cases in a traffic court setting.’ Once this show expands and goes to more places, which is the hope, we want to shine a light on the atrocities that are happening. Lee and I went to the immigration courts down in lower Manhattan. It’s worse than the DMV. Completely unorganized.
Q: Switching gears, I love Succession. Did you do a lot of research to create Stewy?
Moayed: Not really (laughing). I used my nonprofit board skills and just added zeros to it and lost the empathy. And I try to make it as honest as possible.
The interview was condensed.