Interview: Immigrant Experience Is Front and Center in ‘A Good Farmer’ at SOPAC

Sharyn Rothstein was speaking about her play “A Good Farmer” which opens today at South Orange Performing Arts Center during the government shutdown fueled by the breakdown of talks involving the DACA program.

“I actually wrote the play 10 years ago but it feels more relevant by the day –  especially as a government shutdown is happening,” she told New Jersey Next in a phone interview. While news of the shutdown’s end was announced minutes after our conversation, Rothstein’s play addresses perhaps one of the most pressing political and social issues being discussed in the United States and throughout the world.

American Theater Group, a professional member of the New Jersey Theatre Alliance, is SOPAC’s theatre company-in-residence will present the premiere production of “A Good Farmer” which runs from Wednesday, January 24 – Sunday, February 4.

The play, which takes place in a small town in upstate New York, tells the story of Bonnie, who owns a farm along with her husband, and Carla, a recent immigrant from Mexico who works on the farm along with other members of her family.

Playwright Sharyn Rothstein (Courtesy of SOPAC)

The idea for the play began a decade ago when Rothstein read an article about events taking place in Elba, New York, a town of about 2,500 located halfway between Rochester and Buffalo. Increased immigration raids were “tearing apart a small farming community,” Rothstein wrote. “So much land. So much space. And opinions about who belongs on that land were turning neighbors against each other.”

Rothstein said that America Theater Group (ATG) chose to produce the play before Donald Trump was elected president. “I credit Jim [James Vagias, co-founder and Producing Artistic Director of ATG] for having the foresight. But the play — at its center — is about two women connecting. I think it transcends the political.”

While Rothstein has been a pivotal part of the rehearsal process, she credits cast members Janice Amaya, Todd Lawson, Brenda Withers and Ariel Woodiwiss as well as director Kel Haney for bring the challenging material to life.

[L-R] Janice Amaya, Todd Lawson, Brenda Withers, Ariel Woodiwiss. (Courtesy of SOPAC)

“We have such a talented, relentless cast. They are funny and they are unafraid,” explained Rothstein. “Sitting through rehearsal has been gut-wrenching. There’s nothing we can talk about in rehearsal that isn’t in the news at the moment.”

The playwright credits director Kel Haney for her dramaturgical acumen. Haney encouraged Rothstein to adjust the play so that it would be set in the present. “Kel said, ‘Let’s make it now because these issues are burning hotter than in the past’,” recalled Rothstein. “She’s one of my favorite artistic partners.”

In addition to the performances, SOPAC will host a panel discussion after the 3:00 p.m. performance on Sunday, January 28. “The Immigrant Experience: 
Escaping the Shadows Panel Discussion” will be moderated by immigration attorney Michael Noriega and featuring New Jersey Deputy Majority Speaker Annette Quijano; ACLU-NJ senior staff attorney Farrin Anello; playwright Sharyn Rothstein; Sara Mora, a Dreamer and youth activist for Make the Road New Jersey; and Jenna Pannepacker, Executive Director of Sanar Wellness Institute.

“It’s not a play with answers, wrote Rothstein. “Just questions. And, I hope, deep compassion for all people – born on this land, or any other.”

“A Good Farmer” runs from Wednesday, January 24 through Sunday, February 4 at South Orange Performing Arts Center, 1 SOPAC Way, South Orange. Visit their website for tickets and further information.