SANTA FE, N.M. — Coming from the Republic of Georgia to Santa Fe, life in the U.S. was a major shift for Ketevan Kharshiladze Ussery.
She was at the top of her career in her home country, working as an artistic director for a repertory theater in Tbilisi, the capital city, and teaching theater and cinema at the local university.
But her journey in America brought “challenge after challenge.”
“All of a sudden, I am nobody,” she recalled about how she felt when she moved to New Mexico more than 15 years ago. “I am absolutely zero with my broken English.”
An undocumented immigrant at the time, she says she was forced to start anew. She got a job as a salesperson in a downtown jewelry store, a line of work she’d never done before, and had to learn to adjust to a new life.
Along the way, she says, she discovered how to thrive and find life’s “treasures” wherever she was.
“Life can be very exciting and interesting, it depends how you look at life and where you are looking in life,” said Kharshiladze Ussery.
Her one-woman show based on her journey and stories from her first job, “Hidden Treasures: A Georgian Immigrant’s Story,” will premiere at Teatro Paraguas later this week.
The show is being produced through local theater company Ironweed Productions. Scott Harrison, the company’s artistic director and a friend of Kharshiladze Ussery, met her in 2004 through another production.
She came to the U.S. at the end of 2000, seeking political asylum from her home country after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“Even though it was 10 years almost (afterward), it was total chaos; total anarchy,” she recalled during a recent phone interview from El Rito, where she lives with her husband John Ussery and works as a caretaker.
She and a handful of other Georgians made their way out of the country and ended up in Juarez, Mexico, where they were taken across the border. They were detained in El Paso, but after the process of their asylum requests began, they were allowed to go out and support themselves.
“So I went immediately to New York,” she added. “I came here for New York. Manhattan.”
That’s where she met her husband, a northern New Mexico native. The two wed in 2003 and then moved to Santa Fe.
It was then that she got her job at that downtown jewelry store, which isn’t identified by name in the show. There, she says, she had to navigate a demanding boss, and learn the ins and outs of sales.
Throughout her six months of employment at the store, she would also write short stories about her interactions with coworkers and shoppers – tales that are now the core of her one-woman show.
“And it was so interesting for me to see, what can I do and how can I adjust to this kind of life, how can I absorb this, and what product I can make, if not for everybody, but myself?” she said. “And this product were my little stories. It was almost like (a) journal.”
Bringing stories to life
She said she was denied for asylum several times. From 2007-11, Kharshiladze Ussery returned to Georgia. She described it as self-deportation at the suggestion of her attorney after immigration officials had contacted her and her husband, and questioned the validity of their marriage. For a period of time, she thought she would never be able to come back to the U.S.
“But my crazy American husband did it,” she said with a laugh. Three years after her return, she’d become an official U.S. citizen.
While back in Georgia, she had self-published her writings about her time at the jewelry store, in both Georgian and English. Upon her return to New Mexico, she gave copies of the small books to her friends and hoped to create a show from her stories. She and Harrison both finally found the time to start working on the show in late 2017.
The personal aspect of the narrative is what drew Harrison to direct the production.
“There’s this element to the whole story, this whole story and journey the play goes on, that lends itself to the idea that you never know where you’re going to find connection and meaning among people or experiences if you’re open to it,” he said.
“Ketevan, throughout her journey and this story, finds connection and meaning in very surprising places because she’s open to that possibility. I think that’s a message that resonates with a lot of us right now.”
In the show, Kharshiladze Ussery portrays eight characters who represent the people she met on the job. Talking with the customers, she explained, allowed her to “absorb” all types of American people.
One of the stories she describes centers around her interaction with a woman who visited the store. They started talking about Kharshiladze Ussery’s home country and the woman said her husband had visited Georgia years before and fell in love with the culture. It was rare back then for Kharshiladze Ussery to meet someone who knew about her country, let alone had been there.
She told the woman she wanted to meet her husband, but it turned out he had recently passed away. The trip to the jewelry store, Kharshiladze Ussery recalled, was one of the first times the woman had gone out since.
“She went to jewelry store just to kill time, and instead she find friend,” Kharshiladze Ussery said. “Salesperson. Keteva.”