Tender Age began with an image—sleeping children—and a hunch by playwright George Brant that this haunting vision might dovetail in some way with the worsening situation at the US-Mexico border, where refugees were being held in limbo, suspended between leaving and arriving... Then, the news—and pictures—broke: under the Trump administration’s 2018 “zero tolerance” immigration policy, children seeking asylum in the US were being forcibly separated from their families. The stories of children—under 18, under 13, under 3—sent to so-called “tender age” facilities along the Texas-Mexico border struck Brant hard, tethering the play he was already writing to then-current affairs.
Like Grounded, Brant’s tense monologue play about a fighter pilot grounded by pregnancy and retrained to remotely fly drones in the US’s war in Afghanistan, Tender Age is a solo play about the struggles and stakes of individual responsibility within a bureaucracy. How can one person feel responsible, much less make change—any change—in the face of a system so sprawling and entrenched? Martín, a first-generation Mexican American living in the US border town of Brownsville, Texas is uneasy about his new job from the start—guarding refugees awaiting deportation sounds…bleak. But when he sees the center where he’ll be working—a renovated Walmart, home to a barber shop, movie theatre, cafeteria—he figures at least the residents are going to have a pretty cushy stay there while they await their deportation hearings. That optimistic feeling evaporates when the shelter’s first residents arrive in the middle of Martín’s graveyard shift, and he discovers they are all young children. He’s heard, though, about unaccompanied minors making the 1,000-mile journey from Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala on their own. He figures, they’ve got to stay somewhere, right?
As the reality of the new family separation policy becomes clear, Martín finds himself at odds with his wife, who leaves water in the grasslands around the Rio Grande for migrants trying to cross the border; with his extended family, which includes undocumented immigrants; with his daughters, who just want to hear he’s helping los niños. And back at work, strangely, none of the kids are leaving. Then the first kid gets sick. And Martín’s got a new set of decisions ahead of himself.
Tender Age doesn’t offer policy or personal solutions. Instead, it’s an urgent and thoughtful look at how to answer a moral call when you see suffering—and why it takes such direct contact with suffering to feel that call to begin with. And the play turns that question outward: Once you’ve seen power at such close range, what will you do with your own?