“The New Colossus” plays at Knight Theater with a cast of 12 actors from 12 different countries. Photo: ASHLEY RANDALL

Three of my grandparents came from Ukraine, France and Poland, so perhaps I went into “The New Colossus” prejudiced in its favor. But unless all your forebears are native Americans, you’re also descended from immigrants, though your ancestors sailed with the colonizing Spanish and English or crossed the border a few decades ago.

Whether your people came by steerage or first class, fleeing persecution or rushing toward a promised land, in chains or in expectation of plenty, the thing that separates you from refugees in 2020 is time and the good things that come with it: security, prosperity, a sense of privilege. An accident of birth made you American. Their accidents of birth make them want to be American.

We meet a dozen such refugees in “Colossus,” which takes its name from the sonnet Emma Lazarus wrote for the Statue of Liberty. They’re played by people who knew the characters personally, did historical research or, in most cases, shared a bloodline. The performers don’t act so much as embody these people through 90 uninterrupted minutes.

Director Tim Robbins, who wrote the script with his L.A. company The Actors’ Gang, has done bold things that people accustomed to traditional theater may need to get used to. If they can, the experience will be powerful.

We’re alternately asked to listen to refugees and, in effect, become one among them. They speak to us sometimes in English, sometimes in native languages from Finnish to Vietnamese with translated supertitles. Often, they don’t speak at all or speak to each other in languages their counterparts can’t understand.

At least half the show falls into the latter category, immersing us in lives marked by danger, deprivation, exhaustion, loneliness, fear and constant movement. We see them try to build a fire, dig a hole under a fence, cower from surveillance. Once they run pantingly in circles for a long time, which may seem mundane or tedious — a refugee’s life is surely both — but also metaphorically and literally apt.

If you hope for monologues about history, politics and ancestry, you will be disappointed. Characters blurt admissions, many of them dangerous, with the haste of people who need to stay on the run. But we get a special feeling of intimacy that way; we’re like distant cousins, following our relatives’ journeys. We’re reminded that refugees have also had to flee one place in America for another at times: A freed slave runs away from lynchings in the post-Reconstruction South.

“That’s a hero’s journey,” Tim Robbins says of what immigrants historically have had to go through to get to the U.S. Photo: Ashley Randall

Projections at the rear of the stage, including people peering through chinks in the new border wall, instill unease. (We don’t know if they’re looking back at Mexico or out of it.) So does the spare, subtle score, composed mostly by guitarist-percussionist David Robbins and cellist Mikala Schmitz; they play it live, offering comforting Intervals of Bach.

Our national debate about immigration has gone on for 150 years. It’s been about the Irish, Chinese, Jews, Italians, Poles, Mexicans and anyone else deemed to be sneaking out of certain countries to steal jobs. “The New Colossus” reminds us this debate is not about statistics but humans — who, under other circumstances, might be ourselves.


WHEN: Through Feb. 2 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday. Audio description provided at Sunday matinee.

WHERE: Knight Theater, 430 N. Tryon St.

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes with no intermission.

TICKETS: $20-$85.

DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or