The New Colossus
Reviewed by Paul Birchall
The Actors’ Gang
Through March 24
The title of this play refers to the famous poem by Emma Lazarus, inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty and opening with the lines “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free!” It’s the same poem that, a few months back, Donald Trump’s advisor Stephen Miller derisively dismissed as irrelevant, noting, “It didn’t appear on the original Statue of Liberty!”
Lazarus’s poem is clearly the touchstone for this compelling work. Director Tim Robbins hits a home run with this powerful, engrossing piece of impressionistic theater, a work that’s both ferociously political and thrillingly evocative.
The production is clearly designed as a response to the Trump Administration’s war on immigration, which hit a nadir shortly before the show premiered with the president’s unpalatable suggestion that the country should restrict migration from “shithole countries.” The show conveys the idea of America as a refuge for all. The need — and sometimes terror and desperation — that drives people to this country, as well as the responsibility to provide the safe haven our Founding Fathers intended, has rarely been so compellingly presented.
The play consists of a dozen performers, all members of the Actors’ Gang and the children or grandchildren of immigrants. In a fast-paced, sometimes scattershot performance, they depict the journey their relatives made as they came to this country. You might expect this sort of thing to rely on stale clichéd “Fievel Comes to America” type narratives, but Robbins instead crafts a work that is far more immediate and involving.
While it’s clear that each character has his or her own three-dimensional personality, most of the details are left to our imagination, with occasional brief bits of information provided. The show focuses instead on the universal — the desperate circumstances that lead people to risk an illegal and dangerous journey to America.
At rise, the characters appear, each with a suitcase, to address the audience in a literal Babel of different voices and languages. While speaking as a chorus, they individually pack their suitcase and sneak out of their homes. They endure similar terrors as they escape their homelands: in a sort of Grotowski-like exercise, individuals run screaming in circles around the stage, wailing in their characters’ native languages to display the fear and terror that is motivating them. On the page, the conceit sounds hokey, but on stage it’s dynamic and harrowing, and captures the true sense of horror and danger that is propelling trip. Later, in a sort of communal no-man’s land, the refugees set up a camp site and struggle for warmth, bickering with one another and telling their stories (in their characters’ native languages, with subtitles projected against the back wall).
Over and over, the production defies expectations. It’s never sentimental, but instead crackles with urgency and tension. And without ever mentioning Trump or the Administration’s new immigration policies, the piece exposes its politics on the most human level, eloquently berating those who judge the worth of people by their origins.
While the ensemble basically works together as one, particularly vivid characterizations are offered by Paulette Zubata as a Latina fleeing human trafficking, Stephanie Lee as a Vietnamese artist escaping persecution, and Jeanette Horn as a Jewish refugee grandmother from the 1940s.
Actors’ Gang Theatre, 9070 Venice Blvd, Culver City; Thurs through Sat at 8 PM; through March 24. (310) 838-4264 or www.theactorsgang.org. Running time: 2 hrs.