Arts & Entertainment

Famed judge tackles immigration, free speech in latest play

On Monday night, July 30, distinguished Judge H. Lee Sarokin hosted a reading for his latest hot-button-issue play at North Coast Repertory Theatre.

“The Protester,” a one-act play about a family dealing with deportation and free speech issues, ran a brisk 58 minutes so that the 89-year-old Sarokin could preside over his favorite part of the evening: a discussion with the audience on the thorny legal issues in the play.

All but a handful of the Solana Beach theater’s 181 seats were filled for the performance. Afterward, enthusiastic audience members didn’t hold back in expressing their legal opinions or their right to humbly change their minds after the playwright weighed in with his own thoughts.

“I hope there’s a lot of agony out there,” Sarokin joked with the crowd, admitting that he intentionally writes plays with strong arguments on both sides so audience members must consider how their personal feelings affect their views on the law.

“The Protester” is the ninth Sarokin play that North Coast Rep has presented in its New Works series over the past eight years. He took up playwriting after he and his wife of 48 years, Margie, moved to La Jolla after his 1996 retirement from a long and illustrious career as a civil rights champion.

Sarokin spent 25 years as a trial lawyer, then served on the U.S. District Court in New Jersey from 1979 to 1994. Before retiring, he spent nearly two years on the U.S. Court of Appeals.

As a judge, he wrote more than 2,000 legal opinions and made many landmark decisions, including forcing tobacco companies to reveal secret research and ordering service clubs like Kiwanis to admit women.

But the decision he’s most famous for was in November 1985, when he freed former middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter from prison after serving 19 years for a triple-murder he did not commit. It was dramatized in the 1999 film “The Hurricane” and the two men remained close friends until Carter’s death in 2014.

Although Sarokin wasn’t trained in playwriting, he is a lifetime theater buff and he said serving as a trial judge was good preparation, since trials unfold like a play and always have a surprise ending.

All nine of his plays are based on topical issues that present a legal quandary. David Ellenstein, artistic director of North Coast Rep, said Sarokin has a prescient quality of writing plays about issues that later explode into the public consciousness.

His last play, “The Wedding Cake,” was presented at North Coast Rep several months before the U.S. Supreme Court took up the gay marriage-themed issue and well before La Jolla Playhouse produced its own play on the topic, “The Cake,” last winter.

He has also written fictional plays about officer-involved shootings of black men, federal employees who release classified documents, the limits of diplomatic immunity, terrorism and federal corruption.Sarokin said he came up with the idea for “The Protester” in January after reading a report on the harsh living conditions in federal immigration detention centers. He had no idea the topic would blow up it as it has in recent months.

“I try to make my plays current, but I couldn’t keep up with this one,” he said, in a backstage interview before the July 30 reading. “Every day there was something in the paper that was more horrific, whether it was parents being deported and leaving their children behind or the sexual abuse of women in the centers.”

“The Protester” is the story of Juan Rodriguez, a pizzeria worker in his mid-30s who entered the U.S. illegally with his father 20 years before the story begins. At work one day he’s arrested by ICE officers and held in detention for deportation. After six months, he’s freed to return to his wife, children and memory-impaired father thanks to the intervention of his sister Grace, a firebrand law student and naturalized U.S. citizen.

Angry about her brother’s treatment, Grace organizes a noisy anti-deportation protest at her law school’s graduation ceremony, where the anti-immigration U.S. attorney general is scheduled to speak. At a disciplinary hearing, Grace faces suspension or expulsion for repeatedly disrupting the ceremony to exercise her free speech rights. The play ends with Grace’s fate hanging in the balance.

Christopher Williams, who directed the reading, said he loves plays like “The Protester” because they don’t offer a black-and-white conclusion.

“It’s easy to get caught up in the emotions of the play,” Williams said. “We go in with our gut on how we feel about the issue, but his plays help you understand the legal rules behind these decisions.”

After patiently encouraging debate from the audience in the style of a college professor, Sarokin told the crowd that he’s a free speech advocate and is sympathetic to the problems faced by the fictional Rodriguez family. But he doesn’t believe Grace’s right to protest is any greater than the university’s right to choose its own keynote speaker and have a peaceful ceremony.

As with most of Sarokin’s plays, “The Protester” ends with an impassioned speech. In this play it’s delivered by Juan, played by actor Richard Trujillo, on the issues of free speech, patriotism, family unity and the law. Sarokin said these speeches always represent a summation of his own feelings on the topic.

Over the past nearly 90 years, Sarokin said he’s seen great periods of social upheaval in this country. Although the racism and anti-immigrant rhetoric has ramped up in recent years, he said it’s not as severe now as it was during the civil rights era. However, Sarokin said this is the first time he’s seen so much of the agitation, much of it false, being fomented by the president and the administration itself.

He said “The Protester” is his way of making people stop and think, no matter where they come down on the issue of illegal immigration.

“I find it offensive that people who are coming here to seek asylum — which is authorized by international law — are treated in this country like criminals,” he said. “I know this is a hot-button topic. It’s controversial. These plays are a great outlet for me to write about issues I have a great interest in.”

--Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune

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