Nimisha Ladva is a storyteller. The visiting assistant professor in the Haverford Writing Program holds a Ph.D. in literature from UC Irvine and has won many First Person Arts “story slams,” including, most recently November’s All-Star Story Slam, at which she earned the title “the Best Storyteller in Philadelphia.” But back when she was just 21, “with a smile and a handshake,” the British citizen and her family were handed sheets of paper telling them that their visas would not be renewed. Ladva was an undocumented immigrant in the United States. On Monday, in Marshall Auditorium, Ladva shared her story in a moving one-woman show: Uninvited Girl: An Immigrant Story.
With only a chair, stage lights, some sound effects, and her voice, Ladva wove together moments and characters into one collective fabric of her experiences, tracing her childhood in England and adolescence in California, her time as an undergrad at UCLA, and as a professor in Philadelphia. She would deliver lines as her mother, walk across the stage as a narrator, and then portray her own teenage self. Her performance reached a climax at her court case, in which she and her family had to testify before a bellicose judge to earn U.S. citizenship or otherwise be deported. With bravery, strength, and help from loving neighbors, she was granted citizenship. The moving, whirlwind story moved the large audience to a standing ovation, but the performance did more than just entertain.
“Bringing people together to have a shared experience is important because we’re in a place in time where people are not sharing experiences together,” said Ladva, who first performed Uninvited Girl last November, just one week after election day, as part of First Person Arts’ RAW Series. Monday’s performance of the show was her first since then, and she was happy to bring her story to a new group of people.
One of her greatest joys in performing is seeing who her story has touched. She revels in having an audience as diverse as the characters she portrays.
One such character, for example, is a man with several National Rifle Association hats who was a friend of her father’s back in California. After Monday’s performance, Ladva said, one man came up to her and introduced himself as, “another one of those guys with a hat,” to which Ladva responded, “That’s great! I’m so glad that you’re here. But will you be my neighbor?”
“Of course,” he said.
Joining in communion over storytelling is a central facet of what Ladva does, both as a performer and an educator. She’s currently in her third year as a first-year writing seminar professor at the College, and for the third straight year is teaching her seminar “Immigration and Representation.” Each year, the seminar has been taught differently, but she emphasizes the examination of popular narratives about immigration: where they are true, where they are not, and the ramifications of using them. Ladva also asks her students to engage with people who have lived through immigration. A class interview assignment sends students out to uncover immigration stories, whether they be from their own family or elsewhere.
“I want people to have the experience of sitting down face to face with someone and talking about that experience,” she said.
Ladva’s students attended her performance on Monday, giving them a chance to share a lived immigration experience with their own teacher. From the stage, Ladva was able to engage her students via a type of learning that can’t quite be found in the classroom.
“I think the work of the play is to keep making America feeling like home to the people who are here,” she said. “Being at home means you can be at home with neighbors who are unlike you and unlike you in lots of different ways.”
After her performance on Monday, Ladva jumped into preparation mode for another performance at Bryn Mawr College on Wednesday. She expressed gratitude for support from the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, the Provost’s office, and Librarian of the College Terry Snyder, who she said was “able to see the work of the library as being something that brings truth to a community and a community to truth.”
Especially in a moment when immigration is on the front page of every newspaper, Ladva was happy to share her own truth in the best way she knew how.
“This material right now has to be a performance,” she said, “because there’s something valuable, I think, in the power of the theater to bring people together to share something. And I’m always amazed when that actually happens.”
-Michael Weber ’19
Photo by Claire Chenyu Wang ’20