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The Elbert Files: Playwrights expose Steve King


A new one-act play uses the immigrant ancestors of Steve King to expose the Iowa congressman’s xenophobia.

While King’s lack of empathy is well-documented, the play by twin sisters Allison and Margaret Engel views the congressman through the eyes of his own great-grandfather, who says King does not understand history and “forgot where he came from.”

Throughout his political career, King’s comments supporting white nationalists, Nazi sympathizers and English-only laws have been embarrassing to residents of a state settled by immigrants.

But they have had little impact in his northwest Iowa congressional district.

Over eight elections, Republican King’s margins of victory have averaged just over 60 percent. 

His tightest race was in 2012, when he defeated Christie Vilsack, wife of former Gov. Tom Vilsack, 53 percent to 45 percent.

To date, no Democratic challenger has been able to shake King’s base.

The Engels, who were reporters at the Des Moines Tribune and Register in the 1970s and ’80s, researched King’s family tree and found ancestors whose own history is a marked departure from the congressman’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Their play juxtaposes King’s own words with imagined commentary from his great-grandparents, Augusta and Heinrich Harm, who arrived at Ellis Island on March 26, 1894, from the German province of Schleswig-Holstein.

Augusta and Heinrich explain that as German speakers they “were singled out” and persecuted during World War I when Iowa’s governor signed a “Babel Proclamation,” requiring only English be spoken in public.

“If a German farmer bought a new house or more land,” Heinrich says, “he was told the money should have gone to war bonds.”

“The fine for not speaking English,” he adds, “was $100, and six months in jail.”

The family endured many slights and hardships, but life was still better than it had been in Germany, according to Augusta. Back then, she says, “If you made enough money for a little space in the bottom of a ship, anyone could come to America.”

Given what they endured, King’s ancestors say, they assumed future members of their family would be more sensitive to the plights of immigrants.

Instead, their great-grandson has compared modern immigrants to animals and ignored his own family history. In fact, King launched his political career on English-only laws, despite the fact that second-generation members of his own family never learned the language.

The Engels’ inspiration for the play was Jennifer Mendelsohn, an amateur genealogist in Baltimore who invented “Resistance Genealogy,” a movement that uses social media to expose the hypocrisy of modern-day politicians.

Mendelsohn’s first target was Trump adviser Stephen Miller, who, like King, has advocated English-only laws, but who came from immigrants who spoke only Yiddish. Mendelsohn also took down conservative commentator Tomi Lahren, after she attacked the “illegal behavior” of undocumented immigrants, apparently unaware that her own great-grandfather was indicted for forging naturalization documents.

Allison Engel said that after living in Southern California for many years, she and her husband, Des Moines native Scott Kirkpatrick, decided their political activism “could be of more help in Iowa than in California.”

“We bought a house here, changed our voting registration and have gotten involved like never before,” she said.

Allison recruited her sister, Margaret, with whom she’d written two critically acclaimed plays. And instead of blogging or tweeting, like Mendelsohn does, they decided to write the short play “Meet Steve King’s Ancestors!”

They are now using the 19-minute play to raise money for King’s Democratic opponent, J.D. Scholten.

Two readings were performed in Ames earlier this month. To see a video of one of those readings, go to YouTube.com and search for “Steve King’s Ancestors,” or https://bit.ly/2LzXHQU

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