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Eats and Beats: A New Play Brings 'Border Voices' to the Stage

Courtesy of Robert Neustadt

Hundreds of people die each year attempting to cross the international border through the Sonoran Desert. It is described by many as a humanitarian crisis including Robert Neustadt, an activist and a professor Northern Arizona University. He has has written and produced a play called “Border Voices” that features his students acting out harrowing stories taken from the headlines. The vignettes are based on Neustadt’s recently released album of border-related songs. In the latest installment of Eats and Beats, we catch a rehearsal with Neustadt and his cast.

Robert Neustadt: “Border Voices” is a play that I wrote while I was on my sabbatical a few years ago. But it’s really something that I’ve been thinking about over a number of years as I’ve been taking students to the border and doing research on the border and writing music about the border. We actually took a fieldtrip to the border, and we went to Nogales and we crossed over into Mexico and we went to a migrant shelter where recently deported people were, and they spoke with these people and visited with them and got ideas of the actual experience of what it’s like. And we also visited a shrine in the desert where a little girl died. Her name was Josseline and she’s also a character in the play.

"On Our Way" from the new album "Voluntary Return" by Robert Neustadt. The song is about a 14-year-old girl named Josseline from El Salvador who died in the desert while attempting to make a crossing.

Credit Ryan Heinsius
The cast of "Border Voices" rehearses at Flagstaff High School.

RN: A lot of the artifacts that we have on the stage—we have water bottles, we have embroidered cloth, we have shoes—these are actual objects that were taken from the desert. So ideally, these students have become more aware of the humanitarian crisis on the border and that has given them a certain visceral investment in the project.

Credit Ryan Heinsius
Robert Neustadt shows his students a bordado, a cloth often used by migrants for carrying food or valuable items on their journeys.

Emily Tolliver: I’ve got several roles. I’m a U.S. tourist-woman, a desert volunteer. One thing that I didn’t realize is that a lot of people actually are dying when they are crossing the border and going through—after crossing the border, once they’ve gotten that far, that’s not even the hardest part. The hardest part is getting through the desert to wherever they’re going. So I’m hoping that this play can kind of give the broader picture of what’s going on—not just from the U.S. perspective but also from the immigrant perspective.

"Voluntary Return" from Robert Neustadt's new album of the same name

Credit Ryan Heinsius
Rehearsals for "Border Voices"

RN: For this class these students are all studying in a master’s in teaching Spanish class, so I’ve been teaching them how to use theater as a means to teach a second language. And since many of them are actually second-language speakers of English, it’s a good experience for them to be in a class where they’re forced to learn English in theater to think about how their students one day might be using Spanish to teach Spanish.

Enrique Salazar: There’s a lot of people there who are risking their lives to be here in the United States and we just take it for granted sometimes. We’re lucky enough to live here in a great country, and it’s just shocking to see the difference a border can make between two countries.

Ryan Heinsius joined the KNAU newsroom as executive producer in 2013 and was named news director and managing editor in 2024. As a reporter, he has covered a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Public Media Journalists Association Award winner, and a frequent contributor to NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and national newscast.
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