‘Welcome To America’ turns musical spotlight on Caribbean migration

Author:  Gordon Williams
It’s possibly life imitating art, vise versa or several degrees in between.

Williams Karl OBrianBut “Welcome To America”, a Caribbean-flavored musical made for the United States stage is aiming to throw a mega-watt spotlight on those who have come to the U.S. hoping to make home and fortune, according to its Jamaican-born creator.

“Immigration is the core focus,” playwright Karl O’Brian Williams told Caribbean Today last month, weeks before the musical was scheduled to play in – ironically, coincidentally or intentionally – the U.S. capital Washington, D.C., hub of the heated discussion over what America should do about foreigners.

“The focus is on someone coming to the U.S. and trying to live a dream.”

Elijah and SabrinaLess than a year into Donald Trump’s presidency, when some immigrants are already feeling trapped in a nightmare over their place in the U.S., Williams is confident he’s striking the right chord with his latest effort. That’s because he has personally been at the center of the storm, tossed by a whirlpool of raging debate that has whipped the U.S. into a frenzy.

“For a period I was undocumented,” admitted Williams, who is currently artistic director at Braata Productions in New York, one of the musical’s producers.

He also teaches at Borough of Manhattan Community College as theater coordinator. It’s the passion he follows.

“Everything I’ve been doing involves theater,” Williams said.

UNCERTAINTY

He received a bachelor’s degree and post-graduate diploma from the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, then left for the U.S. on a student visa in 2008. After completing a master of arts in educational theater in 2010 at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Cultural Education, he received a renewable U.S. visa, granted to aliens with extraordinary ability, including in the arts, which allowed him to teach and practice his craft.

He had already started work on “Welcome To America” late 2016 – after Trumps campaign and election - when he realized his visa was expiring. For the first three or four months in 2017, Williams said, he found himself firmly in the grip of uncertainty.

“It directly impacted me,” he explained. “For the first time in life I realized what it was to be in the U.S. without papers.

“You’re constantly worried. You’re worried how you eat. Everything is under the table.”

The Trump administration’s ramping up its opposition to undocumented immigrants was unnerving. But Williams said he was confident his musical could help influence the debate.

IMPACT

“If the arts didn’t have any impact, the president wouldn’t be tweeting about people in the arts,” he explained. “… People in power are always aware of the power of the arts … I’m not doing anything new.”

So Williams, who said he has been involved with more than 10 plays, including two – “The Boys on the Hill” and The Black That I Am” - focused on immigration, wrote “Welcome To America”. The story focuses on “Sabrina”, a woman “on the cusp of 30” who left Jamaica determined to become a successful actress. The gender of the musical’s lead was significant.

“I think the stakes are higher for a woman of her age – to give up the comfort of her home in Jamaica and try to make it in New York – an exciting but dangerous city,” Williams said.

“These things I thought about. I thought a woman would face more obstacles … There’s a difference coming to the U.S. … You’re never fully prepared.”

So Sabrina’s “immigrant story,” according to Williams, means coming to grips that her training in Jamaica won’t be enough in New York and she won’t be the next instant superstar. Harassment, unfamiliar accent, skin color and other issues pose obstacles. So she fights to overcome.

“The moral of the story is not giving up, following your dreams,” said Williams.

“You have to broaden your concept of what it is to make it. You give up a whole lot to be here.”

It’s the Caribbean immigrant’s story in America. Welcome.

Karl O’Brian Williams said he’s “shopping around for producers” so he can take the musical to other locations next spring.

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