By Raghava Lakshminarayana and Eric Schmid
Donald Trump isn’t the only American keen on a wall. The Jenkins and the Santiagos, both fictitious families in Shadrack Boakye’s play “Viva Africa,” have festered on two sides of a fence for generations. But unlike Trump’s wall, “Viva Africa’s” fence is overcome to bring the communities together.
“Viva Africa” tells the story of a typical neighbourhood in New York, where immigrants from different backgrounds are forced to share a common space.
“The idea behind [the play] was to show people we all came from one place and that’s Africa,” Boakye, who has written “The Secrets of Naci-Rema” and “The Way to the Moon,” said. The play has been on Long Island since February, most recently at the Boys and Girls Club in Bellport, New York.
The play also has personal meanings for Boakye. “People around me were telling me that I couldn’t make it,” Boakye said. “That tells something about the characters on this stage, how they are misrepresented because of their race, where they’re from and the fact that they don’t even get a chance to be able to prove themselves.”
Boakye is a refugee from Liberia who came to Long Island not knowing English.
Some 526,000 immigrants and refugees live on Long Island, according to 2015 data from Long Island Wins, a communications organization that focuses on local immigration issues. “Long Island has received the most refugee children, more than any other place in the state,” Maryann Slutsky, executive director of Long Island Wins, said.
“[Long Island has] largest suburban immigration group in the country,” Patrick Young, program director of the Central American Refugee Center, said.
Even with a large population on Long Island, immigrants still face discrimination. Young witnessed this firsthand when he saw Latino citizens heckled by chants of “anchor baby” while testifying in the county legislature.
“They come here and know they have to work harder to make it,” Slutsky said.
That happened to Gabriela Castillo’s parents, who fled El Salvador’s civil war for menial jobs in the U.S., like washing dishes or cleaning houses.
“Many of those jobs weren’t jobs where you were able to save for retirement,” Castillo, coordinator for the Long Island Civic Engagement table who came to the United States in 1985, said.
“Immigrants come here for a better life,” Slutsky said. “The come to escape extreme violence, persecution and poverty.”
Boakye was no different.
“We called America ‘heaven,’ so when you came to the United States you believed you were coming to heaven,” he said. “When I got here, it felt like I had actually moved to hell.” He added he felt cast aside by American society.
“Nobody spoke to me, nobody wanted to get to know me, I was always behind that line,” Boakye explained.
Castillo experienced difficulties adapting to a life away from civil war.
“For the first few years, things like fireworks were traumatizing,” she explained. “I just remember doing what I had to do in El Salvador when we would hear bombs or gunfire. That was just to hide under the bed; go into a corner and cover my ears.”
But the struggles, Boakye says, bolster him now.
“I had to go through a lot for me to get here, but every single thing I went through was needed,” Boakye said. He sees “Viva Africa” transforming Long Island.
“It’s addressing what’s happening in our communities,” Sybil M. Johnson, executive director for the Bellport Boys and Girls Club, said. Johnson added the first set of shows saw about 400 people. “It’s bringing hip-hop, culture and diversity together and people love it.”
“There is no other play like this on Long Island,” Boakye said.
“Viva Africa” will play at the Bellport Boys and Girls Club until November 5. It will move to Suffolk Community College in November.