By: Shari Barrett | January 16, 2020 | 7:11 AM
With the topic of illegal immigration so prevalent in today’s news, now is the perfect time to take a very personal look at the trials and tribulations of those who immigrated, both legally and illegally, to our country in THE NEW COLOSSUS, a new play co-written by The Actors’ Gang ensemble and its Artistic Director Tim Robbins, who also directs the production. In it, twelve of the acting troupe’s members tell their ancestors’ stories, reflecting their great diversity, struggles and journeys from oppression to freedom, a real personal testament celebrating the courage and great character of the refugees who came to this country throughout the last 200 years.
My very personal experience of this play began from the moment I entered the theater and was asked to please place markers on a posted World map of where my ancestors called home before immigrating to the United States. I quickly placed two on Warsaw, Poland and Kiev, Ukraine, which was then Russia. You see, all four of my grandparents, as well as my father, escaped oppression in Eastern Europe and the Holocaust by doing whatever they could to get to America for a better life for themselves, their children, and grandchildren. And I thank them every day for the hardship and struggle they endured to make my life filled with freedom possible.
Director Tim Robbins said, “I live in Los Angeles, where one can only be struck by the contributions made to our city by immigrants and people who came here as refugees. The Actors’ Gang felt compelled to respond to the government’s anti-refugee and anti-immigration policies – and to tell a story that draws attention to the true nature of people that live in this country. Save for the Indigenous, all of our families came here as refugees or immigrants.”
Set somewhere between the 19th century and now, THE NEW COLOSSUS tells the story of forced migration and the constant struggle for survival and dignity in an uncertain and hostile environment. The twelve members of The Acting Company portray characters from different parts of the world (often their own ancestors), first introducing themselves to the audience by name, age, place of origin, and the date their journey began, then go on to tell their stories, each in a different language, and each in different dress appropriate to their place of origin and the time period during which their journey began. As different as they each appear, their stories are remarkably similar given the common experience of all refugees fleeing some kind of oppression and moving toward safety and hopefully, freedom.
The play is a movement piece rather than one of the spoken word since for most of the play we cannot understand the words being said, other than a few times when they are spoken in English or a second language we can understand, or when broadcast in English via projections designed by Cihan Sahin (which also contain photos of refugees struggling from all over the world). But it is during those movements we learn their commonality; the need to escape oppressive homelands, packing in a rush while trying to say goodbye to those they love, hanging onto their few worldly possessions in a single piece of luggage, running in circles while fearing discovery, often screaming in fear while attempting to reach a safe place and most heartbreaking to me, their struggle to create a fire so all can stay warm.
But even in their misery, these immigrants prove the human heart still can open and share whatever we have to those even more in need than ourselves. And that is a lesson I learned from my father who immigrated from Warsaw with his mother and siblings when he was eight years old in 1928, then worked at his parents’ deli counter in Chicago where he often brought friends home from school who had not eaten for days during the depression so he could make them a sandwich.
The twelve actors, accompanied by musicians David Robbins and Mikala Schmitz who added in such an artistically meaningful original soundtrack for the immigrants’ travels and travails, are all to be commended for their dedication to the story which I guarantee will bring tears to your eyes by the time the 90-minute performance ends. They are, in alphabetical order, along with the character being portrayed:
Pierre Adeli – Homayun Dideban, his father
Onur Alpsen – Mehmet Fatih Tras, his friend
Quonta Beasley – Sadie Duncan, based on her great-great-great-great aunt and research on post-slavery Reconstruction
Kayla Blake – Anna Margaret Wong, her mother
Kathryn Cecelia Carner – Elin Matilda Nylund, her great-grandmother
Jeanette Rothschild Horn – Yetta Rothschild, her grandmother
Dora Kiss – Aranka Markus, based on her grandmother
Stephanie Lee – Ly My Dung, based on her mother and grandmother
Mary Eileen O’Donnell – Helga Schmidt, based on research
Zivko Petkovic – Mirko Petkovic, his grandfather
Mashka Wolfe – Tatyana Iosifovna Birger, her mother
Paulette Zubata – Gabriela Mia Garcia, her mother
Chronologically, their stories begin after the Civil War with a woman, a freed slave, who heads north, up the Mississippi River, to escape the death squads of the KKK; a Finnish woman flees the Russian invasion in 1904 and winds up in Superior, Arizona; a Jewish woman escapes the Nazis and arrives in Brooklyn, New York in 1938; a Malaysian child acrobat, born into a family of performers, escapes the Japanese invasion and makes her way to San Francisco in 1944; a Hungarian flees Communism in 1950; a woman risks her life to escape Vietnam after Saigon falls and comes to Los Angeles in 1978; an Iranian whose family is in danger after the revolution in 1979 comes to Colorado; a Mexican woman who fears for her life in a town run by a drug cartel flees to California in 1993; and a Turkish dissident attempts to flee Istanbul in 2017.
As Robbins states, “Our hope is that we will be able to illuminate the courage, fortitude and humor of the refugees that have defined this land and, in doing so, discover the similarities that exist between our ancestors and those who are currently struggling for dignity and freedom today.” And at the end of each performance, Robbins and the actors engage the audience by asking them to share either their experience of immigration or their family’s experience. People from all over the world have been found in each audience; a true representation of the character and makeup of this great country we share.
THE NEW COLOSSUS shares its title with the sonnet written by poet Emma Lazarus in 1883 for an exhibit to raise funds for the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, which opened in 1886. Even though the Statue of Liberty was not conceived as a symbol of immigration, Lazarus reinvented the statue’s purpose, turning Liberty into a welcoming mother, a symbol of hope to the outcasts and oppressed of the world, shared by the cast at the end of the play:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
To continue bringing the universal message of the play to audiences everywhere, THE NEW COLOSSUS is going on a North American Tour taking performances to the following cities:
January 28-February 2, 2020 / Charlotte, NC / Knight Theater
February 7-8, 2020 / Schenectady, NY / Proctor’s Theatre
February 14-16, 2020 / Detroit, MI / Music Hall
February 20-22, 2020 / Seattle, WA / Moore Theatre
February 25-26, 2020 / Durango, CO / Community Concert Hall
February 28-29, 2020 / Iowa City, IA / Hancher Auditorium
March 3-4, 2020 / Folsom, CA / Harris Center
April 9-11, 2020 / Nashville, TN / James K. Polk Theater
A complete list of tour dates and showtimes with ticket availability can be found at https://theactorsgang.com/u-s-tour/ I encourage everyone to order tickets now for your entire family so that you can engage with each other afterward by sharing your own family memories of what it took by the brave souls who first decided the golden torch held high by Lady Liberty was calling them to fight all obstacles in order to live in freedom.
Photo credit: Ashley Randall