The heart of a new Pittsburgh play called "Camino" is invisible.
He flits in and out of scenes, and converses with other characters in the production by the Hiawatha Project, a Pittsburgh theater company. His unfinished journey is central to the plot, but the character Camino -- an injured bird cared for by an imprisoned illegal immigrant -- will not grace the stage during his namesake play's run Friday through Sept. 24 at the Dance Alloy Studio Theater in Friendship.
Nor will Milton Mejia, the 23-year-old Honduran immigrant whose story inspired the play.
Four years ago, Pittsburgh-based writer and director Anya Martin met and befriended Mr. Mejia when he was a student at Pittsburgh Schenley High School. Ms. Martin was directing a play by and about local Latino youth, and Mr. Mejia was in the cast.
A year later, he was gone.
Mr. Mejia returned to his native country in fall 2008 amid threats of deportation from federal authorities, who discovered that Mr. Mejia had illegally immigrated from Honduras three years before.
He spent months in for-profit immigrant detention centers, and he left behind his wife, fellow Schenley High student Stephany McMullen. Ms. McMullen, now Ms. Mejia, came to Pittsburgh from Venezuela, but is legally permitted to live in the U.S.
Ms. Martin watched the Mejias' immigration nightmare unfold. She and several community organizers tried to raise funds to aid the couple's legal battle. But as Ms. Martin's emotional stake in the case grew, so did her conviction that the most effective way for her to help the Mejias was to bring their story to the stage.
Ever since, Ms. Martin and Michelle Carello, co-founders of the Hiawatha Project, have been at work on "Camino."
"Everything is inspired by Milton's journey," Ms. Martin said of the play.
The play has always hinged on the story of a young Honduran immigrant named Andoni -- Milton Mejia's middle name -- who is trapped in an airless, privately owned detention center in the fictional "Southwest Perimeter" security zone.
He finds a small bird lost from a migrating flock, which he names "Camino" (Spanish for "walk" or "journey"). He resolves to nurse the bird to health and send it to Pittsburgh as a sign for his wife, Estrella, who cannot locate her husband within the labyrinthine immigrant detention system.
The version of "Camino" set to premiere this week relies heavily on technology. Computer projections show high-tech security systems in Andoni's jail and global positioning software, which monitors the movement of illegal immigrants.
While Camino never appears onstage, audiences will be able to see what the bird sees thanks to a special "bird's eye view" camera and screen. To convey a conversation between Andoni and Camino, the actor portraying Andoni cradles a tiny camera in his hand, and the actor's face appears on a small screen mounted above the stage.
This elaborate design is far removed from the play's earliest iterations, said Ms. Martin and Ms. Carello. The cast has grown from five people to 12 over the past three years, and the "bird's eye" camera replaces a Camino puppet that appeared in a version of the play that was performed in a workshop in 2009.
"We're theater artists and the kind of theater we are most interested in is purposefully theatrical," Ms. Martin said. "We are trying to do with theater what film or TV cannot do."
Ms. Martin and Ms. Carello filmed about a dozen hours of interviews with the Mejias before Milton went back to Honduras, and set out to create a play that reflects their experiences with the little-known network of private for-profit immigrant detention centers that dot the country.
National Public Radio ran an extensive series on for-profit immigrant detention soon after Ms. Martin began writing the play. It was the first in a string of media reports on the relationship between the detention business and immigration law.
NPR eventually traced the authorship of Arizona's controversial 2010 immigration bill, Arizona State Bill 1070, to a company that owns and operates such detention centers -- a discovery that Ms. Martin said had a huge impact on her play.
Also influential was Pittsburgh's small but vigorous community of immigration-rights activists. At the play's first reading in 2009, Ms. Martin said about 30 people who knew little about the play other than its basic theme "just showed up" to seek information about detention centers.
"People came looking for connections because someone they knew had been taken," Ms. Martin said. "But we are not specialists. We are artists looking to the heart of the issue. Where to get help -- that's really not our strong suit."
Ms. Martin credits Sister Janice Vanderneck, formerly of the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese, with connecting her to Pittsburgh's immigrant advocacy community. She is currently a residential counselor at Girls Hope, a home for disadvantaged preteen and teen girls in Baden.
The Latino youth group through which Ms. Martin first met the Mejias has since crystallized into Jóvenes Sin Nombres, led by activist paralegal Alfonso Barquera and Carnegie Mellon University history professor Michal Friedman.
Ms. Friedman said she encourages the teens and young adults in their group to use art as a means to inform the public of their views on immigrant rights and the need for immigration reform. During a break from work on "Camino" last year, Ms. Carello collaborated with Jóvenes Sin Nombres on a mural at the Latino Family Center in Squirrel Hill. In turn, the Hiawatha Project has employed several members of the group as interns and assistants on "Camino."
Ms. Friedman said she believes the experimental form "Camino" has taken over the past few years will grab audiences who are unfamiliar with the detention system.
"It's not something where you're hit over the head with a message that's heavy-handed," Ms. Friedman said. "This story needs to be told so people are really aware of what goes on."
Ms. Friedman and Mr. Barquera have helped organize two talk-back panels during the run of "Camino," inviting local professors and immigration lawyers and law experts to discuss the play.
Stephany Mejia, who just returned from a few-month-long visit with Milton in Honduras, will sit on the first panel. She is hoping audience members don't ask too many personal questions about her and her husband during the panel, but she said she is excited to participate.
Ms. Mejia is currently taking night classes in social work at the Community College of Allegheny County and working as an intern for Milton's lawyer, Jacqueline Martinez; she wants to become a social worker. She also wants her husband to return to Pittsburgh, as promised.
"It's getting harder for me to come back," she said of her once- or twice-yearly trips to Honduras.
Ms. Martinez believes Milton could be back in the United States within a year depending on visa allotment patterns, Ms. Mejia said, adding that she has only just started to consider what she and Milton will do if Milton's request to return to Pittsburgh is denied again.
Until then, she is doing what she can to promote the need for immigration policies that don't break up families. "I hope for more awareness about the immigration centers and what people are actually going through," she said.
Tickets to "Camino" are available at http://hiawathaproject.showclix.com/.