Helen Thorpe's Just Like Us: Politics gets personal in play premiering tonight at DCPA

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Just Like Us, Helen Thorpe's bestselling book, was a variation on "Head of the Class," a 2004 Westword cover story that followed Pablo, a West High student whose grades and high school activities made him an ideal candidate for college, except for one hitch: Pablo was illegal. For the book, though, Thorpe profiled not just one student but four: all friends, all originally from Mexico -- but two were the the country legally, and two were not. Just Like Us followed these girls through the end of high school and on into college, showing how their lives were affected by immigration laws.

The stories were riveting -- so riveting that the Denver Center Theater Company decided the book had the makings of a play, and playwright Karen Zacarias's script based on Thorpe's book debuted at the DCTC's most recent New Play Summit. Then, last spring, the DCTC announced that four of the scripts introduced at the Summit would get full-blown productions in the regular fall season, including Just Like Us.

After a week of previews, that play has its world premiere tonight at the Denver Center.

The story has gone through many changes from the original -- just as Thorpe's book morphed as she researched it. For example, she was not initially going to be part of the story. As a lifelong journalist, Thorpe prefers to document the action, not be a part of it. But she had little choice after an illegal immigrant who worked at one of the restaurants once owned by then-Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, her husband at the time, killed an off-duty police officer.

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And she's even more front and center in this version of the play, which uses the journalist to tell much of the story, "manufacturing drama between this Helen Thorpe and the other characters," the real Thorpe says. This actress even looks like Thorpe, unlike the "very elegant, Meryl Streep-like" actress who played her in the Summit reading. "I'd be much happier if I'm not in it," Thorpe admits, then adds, "It's their play."

She understands what that means, as well as what it means to be an immigrant: As a girl growing up in Ireland, Thorpe would go to the theater in Dublin; raised on all those Irish playwrights, she has a solid appreciation of the art. And after seeing a rehearsal of Just Like Us, she found herself pleased with many of the changes. "I've given feedback, I'm now comfortable," she says. "They've really brought things to life with dancing and music. There's a lot of movement."

About a quarter of the dialogue is in Spanish; "it's more bilingual than the book," she notes. But the audience should have no problem understanding the message.

Adding to that message are what she calls some "really interesting choices around casting" -- choices that add their own political commentary. For example, one actor plays both the very Mexican, very conservative Catholic father of one girl, as well as Tom Tancredo, the anti-immigration crusader who's the focus of a chapter in the book.

Immigration is just as hot a topic as when Thorpe's book was first released, and the play should inspire further discussion -- and more interest in Just Like Us. "Having this play come out is giving the book a second life," says Thorpe.

But meanwhile, she's moved on to another book, this one focusing on three women in the National Guard, all of whom signed up before 9/11.

Tancredo has moved on, too: He's running for governor again, against incumbent Hickenlooper. And for the record, he'd like to see Matt Damon cast in the role of Tancredo.

But just like the girls in Just Like Us, part of growing up is discovering that you can't have everything...

More from the Calhoun: Wake Up Call archive: "The Homeless Diamond hits a homer in Sonny Lawson Park."

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