Review: ‘Detained’ confronts the many cruelties of the immigration system

A woman speaks in the middle of six actors dressed in orange like prisoners.
Will Dixon, left, Theo Perkins, Christine Avila, Camila Ascencio, Michael Uribes, Liana Aráuz and Jan Munroe in “Detained” at the Fountain Theatre.
(Jenny Graham)

“Detained,” a documentary drama on the plight of U.S. residents thrown into detention and threatened with deportation, fills in the news headlines with agonizing personal stories.

France-Luce Benson’s play, which is having its premiere at the Fountain Theatre, was conceived and co-created by Judy Rabinovitz, whose work as an ACLU immigration attorney inspired the piece. Under the direction of Mark Valdez, “Detained” moves us from highly partisan debates about immigration policies to the destructive fallout on families and individuals who considered America not just their home but their safe haven.

The series of theatrical snapshots includes Melida (Liana Aráuz), a no-nonsense woman in her 50s from Guatemala, who supports her family as a New York City roofer. Her daughter, Mercedes (Camila Ascencio), bursts with pride when she talks about her mother’s fearlessness in scaling the tallest buildings. And this young woman’s heart breaks when she recalls the nightmare that engulfed them when an Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer knocked unexpectedly one day on their door.


Warren (Will Dixon), a U.S. veteran from Trinidad, can’t believe his distinguished military service isn’t having any sway with the immigration judge at his hearing. “I spent three years and two months in immigration detention,” he says. “You wouldn’t believe how many U.S. veterans was in there.”

Abraham (Theo Perkins), who came to the U.S. from Eritrea and graduated from Columbia University despite periods of homelessness, lives in a state of anxiety after an unnecessary encounter with the police. He’s reminded of a felony charge he received for taking out library books without a library card — a youthful mistake that could at any moment rob him of all that he’s accomplished.

Claudia (Christine Avila), the lawyer assisting in these cases, explains that in immigration law, “aggravated felony” is a category that carries “particularly harsh consequences for noncitizens.” These are often minor crimes that come back to haunt a resident, who assumed the matter was long settled.

In making the border “crisis” an animating issue of his presidency, Donald Trump exploited the divisions that make compassionate and common-sense immigration reform a legislative impossibility. The ratcheting up of enforcement under his watch, combined with the dehumanizing rhetoric he regularly spouted, gravely exacerbated the cruel madness chronicled in “Detained.”

The play probably won’t be seen by those indifferent to the myriad lives trapped in the cruel limbo of our broken immigration system. So what audience is the play trying to reach?

Perhaps people like me, who are sympathetic from a convenient distance. In familiarizing theatergoers with the immense toll these policies take on individuals and their loved ones, the play reminds us that human rights abuses are more than a talking point.


What’s more, intellectual disapproval is of no help to those who have been confined against their will, placed in an orange jumpsuit and presumed to be guilty in a system that hasn’t the bandwidth for narrative complexity or nuance. “Detained” is offered as a corrective to this kind of privileged abstraction.

The ensemble, which includes strong performances by Aráuz, Dixon and Perkins, maintains a communal focus. The stories are surveyed in a way that yields parallel discoveries. The details may be different but the sense of injustice is strikingly similar.

Handheld cameras project live video of characters caught in the Kafkaesque maze. The uncluttered scenic design by Sarah Krainin places the focus where it should be — on the actors.

The message of the play comes through loud and clear in Valdez’s staging. Sometimes a touch too loudly. The intimacy of the space provides an opportunity to speak to an audience. But sometimes the volume level is unnecessarily distancing.

As documentary dramas go, “Detained” is uncomplicatedly straightforward. Perhaps directness is what’s required for an issue that cries out for more listening and less demagoguing.


Where: Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays, Mondays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 10

Tickets: $25-$45

Contact: (323) 663-1525 or

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes