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Capturing the US Immigrant Experience on Stage

Maggie Cleland, a graduate theater student, teaches adults English as a second language in Arlington, Virginia. Recently she turned the real-life stories of her students into an ensemble theater piece titled "Beyond the Simple Present." For producer Tang Ximing, Elaine Lu has the story.

"Beyond the Simple Present" captures some of the true experiences Maggie Cleland's students have encountered as immigrants' adapting to life in the U.S. The play recounts their stories as they learn English and reshape their identities in a new country. Cleland, who teaches at the Arlington Education and Employment Program (REEP), says the title comes from teaching these adult students English

"The simple present is a verb tense," Cleland says. "That's something we teach our students, we are a language school so that's what we are all about. And also because this play takes us in different moments in time, for example when students are adjusting to the culture gestures, they are remembering, so it's the past, so their present, their present time is not simple, that's why it's beyond... Their life now is not simple. It's usually quite challenging if not very difficulty. And then there is an extra meaning, which is present as a gift. "

Jiang Xing has been in the U.S. for six months. Her character loves to collect recipes from around the world.

"The character I play loves food," according to Jiang. "I think she is very dramatic, but it is true that Chinese people miss food from home when they are abroad."

"The idea came to me actually within my first week of teaching," Cleland said. "I had asked the students to write essays about their lives and I remember that I was at the metro [subway] and I had some time to wait for the next train. I pulled out the stories and I started to read them, and they moved me so much. And I had no idea that people here had experienced what they experienced. That's what first gave me this idea that I shouldn't be the only one to know those stories, that these stories are too important, that other people need to know about them, need to honor them, need to try to understand."

Those stories are brought to life in the play.

Many in the audience have been touched by the real-life experiences depicted in the play.

"I thought the show was wonderful," one audience member said. "I thought it was very moving and it really gave you some insight into what's it like to come to this country, not knowing English and try to survive."

"A dream would be to able to even travel around the country doing this kind of project with different groups and developing programs where I could train other teachers to do this," Cleland added. "For me, this play was also my gift, personal gift to the students at the school from what they gave to me. I wanted to give something back by honoring their stories in that way."