When playwright Karen Zacarias turned Helen Thorpe’s “Just Like Us” into a play, she knew that the University of Denver had to be part of the story — just as it was in Thorpe’s 2009 book about four young women originally from Mexico and living in Colorado. Subtitled “The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America,” the nonfiction book followed the girls on their journey from high school to college. Three of them attended and graduated from DU.
“First I just dramatized every single scene that was in the book, and that was just too much,” Zacarias says of writing the play that premiered Oct. 4 at the Denver Center Theatre Company. “The last year has been about shaving and cutting and really focusing on the four young women, three of whom are DU alums, and how being good students and the quest to go to college and going to DU changes their life and their perspective on a lot of things. I really think it’s an amazing play that talks about the eye-opening experience of a good liberal arts education and also what it means to be an American and have opportunities in this country.”
Five scenes in the play take place at DU: three in the residence halls, one at an anti-immigration rally at Boettcher Hall, and one in the classroom. The latter scene is based on a section of the book that details a class taught by associate sociology professor Lisa Martinez.
“The scene with Lisa is really eye-opening for the girls,” Zacarias says. “It’s intellectually and philosophically really relevant to the discussion of what it means to be a person living within the boundaries of the United States of America.”
Martinez says the “Lisa Martinez” character in the play is a composite of a few different faculty members at DU, but that the classroom scene mirrors the way she talks to her students about immigration issues.
“In the scene, there’s some discussion between the professor character and the young women about questions of democracy and what this country is based on, and given that they have an immigrant past or are immigrants themselves, that essentially is what this country has been all about,” she says.
Focused as it is on such a hot-button issue, the play it is generating a lot of discussion. Gov. John Hickenlooper and Sen. Michael Bennet have seen it, and President Obama was talking about coming before the shutdown began. The buzz extends to DU as well, where several groups of students — including the Latino Student Alliance and a group of Puksta scholars — have attended performances.
“I think for many it was very powerful, because for many of them this was the first time they could relate to something because it spoke directly to things in their lives,” Martinez says. “I’ve heard back really positive things about the play and the message that it gets out there. And being able to reach the public who might not otherwise be interested or see the relevance of immigration — it’s able to do all those things, I think.”
Zacarias says she knew she had a big responsibility going into the project — which was commissioned by the Denver Center Theater Company and its artistic director, Kent Thompson — and that fact made the process all the more special.
“As a playwright, it’s been very challenging and very exciting to try to balance all of these points of view and all of these people’s need to be heard, but it’s been one of the most rewarding artistic experiences of my life,” Zacarias says. “I think the play is really important, and all the actors feel that way too. It’s bigger than any one of us. So many of the actors have lived through what the girls have lived through, and it’s very emotional.”
“Just Like Us” runs through Nov. 3 at the Denver Center, visit the organization’s website for tickets and information.