Their stories come in a variety of languages from a range of places and across many different time periods.
For Academy Award-winning actor Tim Robbins and his Actors’ Gang company, however, stories inspired by the lives of immigrants and refugees, which involve courage and the fortitude of people who flee oppression in search of freedom, are more alike than they are different.
These stories, which make up the new play “The New Colossus,” are poignant reminders of what defines our nation.
“Immigrants and refugees defined the character of who we are. So ‘The New Colossus’ is an answer to the divisive rhetoric that’s out there right now,” Robbins said during an interview at the Ivy Substation, a 1907 building that houses his Actor’s Gang company.
The actor and activist is directing the play during its Feb.17 – March 24 run at the 99-seat Culver City theater. Previews begin Feb. 8.
Made up of a series of vignettes that span from the 1800s to modern times, the play was written by the 12-member ensemble.
The actors took stories from ancestors and their own personal experiences to create narratives on topics including forced migration, the struggle for artistic freedom and the sense of being a refugee within one’s own country.
The stories are told in languages that range from English and Farsi to Turkish and Cantonese.
“It raises the questions of, What is America? Who are we? How were we constructed? What are the different stories of refugees and immigrants that define this country,” Robbins said.
The company was founded in 1981 by a group of actors that included Robbins, who now serves as artistic founding director.
During its more than 36-year history, the company has produced more than 200 plays locally and internationally.
The newest one takes its name from the iconic sonnet written by poet Emma Lazarus in 1883, which was later engraved on a bronze plaque on the Statue of Liberty, that includes the lines, “…Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
The play itself was inspired by recent political events including the rhetoric on the presidential campaign trail, which Robbins saw as divisive, xenophobic and racist.
“There was a certain amount of anger, yes, but it was more the widespread display of ignorance that was upsetting,” Robbins said of his reaction to what he saw during the presidential campaign and the current political climate.
“I think our job as people who want to tell stories is to try and eliminate the hypocrisy that exists and try to tell the truth that is behind all of this. And the truth is in all of us, who we are and what our stories are of immigration,” he said.
The stories told in “The New Colossus,” include a piece by company member Quonta Beasly, who looked to the mid-1800s to tell the story of African Americans in the South during the time of Reconstruction through the eyes of her great-great-great-aunt, who was born in Louisiana and sold into slavery at the age of five.
Beasley’s story looks at what it was like as her aunt migrates from Louisiana to Arkansas and eventually ends up in Illinois.
“I am telling the story of a woman who had to leave because of persecution. The time I set it in was during Reconstruction right after slavery ended, and there was white backlash in the South. People were dying, churches and schools were being burned and there was persecution all around,” Beasly noted.
“It was a time to leave the South, and many blacks did,” she said.
Company member Pierre Adeli, meanwhile, based his story on his father who had to flee the revolution in Iran in 1975.
“For me, the important part of this show is to get away from the abstractions. I think so many times – because of the way the media frames the refugee crisis – it’s an intellectual exercise and something we think about in the abstract. And one of the strengths of this show is that it brings it to the personal and the specifics. It’s real and tangible and something you can feel and touch,” Adeli said
Indeed, these stories can really resonate with the audience, Robbins noted.
“I think what’s nice about the piece is that it makes the audience think about their own past, that they are connected to the stories they are seeing on stage, that there is very little difference between the story of the audience and the story of the refugees and the immigrants who are telling it in the New Colossus,” Robbins said.
“I hope they’re (the audience) inspired to think differently about the word ‘refugee,’ the word ‘immigrant.’ I think when we hear the word ‘immigrant’ and the word ‘refugee’ we should all be thinking about ourselves and our own family stories,” Robbins added.
The New Colossus
When: Opens at 8 p.m. Feb. 17 and runs through March 24 with 8 p.m. performances Thursdays-Saturdays.
Where: The Actor’s Gang Theatre, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City.
Tickets: $34.99 general admission, $30 for seniors, $20 for students and people under 30 years of age. Thursday evenings are “pay what you can.”
Information: 310-838-4264, www.theactorsgang.com