OnStage Connecticut Critic
Even though Collective Consciousness Theatre’s “Stories of a New America” has been almost seven years in the making, this docu-drama couldn’t be more timely. Back in 2010 when CCT’s artistic director Dexter J. Singleton and a small group of theater artists joined forces with IRIS [Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services], a New Haven based refugee resettlement agency, Barack Obama was only halfway into his first term and the country was still reeling from the Bush-era violence overseas. Singleton and his team completed over 100 hours of interviews with refugees from nearly a dozen countries in nearly a dozen languages, eventually culling it down into a highly digestible and educational hour-long show, which toured in schools and different Connecticut communities. I actually saw an earlier incarnation of “Stories” in the fall of 2012, when it came through Quinnipiac University where I was a student.
After a few years’ hiatus, “Stories” is back in a new (and improved) production, which received a stage reading February 16-18 before going on tour this Spring. Not just is the show tighter, more nuanced and more intimate than when I first saw it, but the timing couldn’t be more apropos. Here is a play about the refugee experience, from the mouth of refugees and performed by an (excellent) ensemble cast that includes two refugees. Yes, the issue of immigration is a white-hot topic but the play’s deep roots mean that “Stories” isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to what’s on the news, nor is it any kind of theatrical protest. It doesn’t name-check the current POTUS and side-steps talk of terrorism, government funding or Islamophobia. That’s OK because “Stories” isn’t really interested in politics, it aims is to give voice to a population that is rarely heard. There are many ways the interviews done for this piece could have been put together into a work of theater but the inventive completed play (which is credited to the ensemble as a whole, with direction by Jenny Nelson) eschews traditional narrative in favor of a more freeform, prose style. There’s echoes of “For Colored Girls” or even “Under Milkwood” in the way Nelson and her company weave these stories together – sometimes in stand-alone vignettes, sometimes in overlapping scenes and sometimes told in one voice, slam-poetry style. Given that each of the six actors plays multiple parts, switching characters, nationalities and accents rapidly without benefit of costume or set change, it is often difficult to discern which refugee’s story we are hearing. But that little bit of confusion is not a hindrance but one of the show’s best achievements. It allows us to not study individual performances or get lost in specific narratives, but look at the bigger picture they create. It is a visualized radio-play that reminds us just how hard and rewarding assimilation is to this vast and diverse group of refugees.
Take, for instance, one of the show’s funniest vignettes in which a young Somali recounts her confusion when she first saw someone jogging outside her home. “I thought something happened – war, or something,” she says, “I’d never seen people running in a group before.” From learning cultural faux pas (boys don’t typically wear pink to school) to the wide language barrier (“It’s almost like you’re deaf, you can hear, but you don’t understand”), much of “Stories” is interested in the everyday struggles of finding yourself a stranger in a strange land. While the show is surprisingly funny and buoyant for most of its brisk running time, there are a few moments of solemnity that shed light on just how complicated an issue immigration is, even from a cultural stand-point. During the most fascinating of which, an Iraqi woman voices her frustration about being treated the same as other refugees. “Most of Iraqi refugee that arrive are good educated,” she says in broken English, “they lived a good life, but the one who come from Congo, maybe he don’t have education.” Besides, she concludes in the show’s most biting line, “maybe the American government should take care of the Iraqi refugee more than any other one…because of America, most of us become refugees.”
That caustic edge is a rarity in “Stories,” a brief glimpse into the murkier side of the refugee narrative. I wish the play had embraced that darkness a little more and would have gladly welcomed a slightly longer running time if it meant a few slower, introspective moments where characters like that Iraqi could voice her grievances unfiltered. The same goes for a Sudanese film editor who begins telling us about the violence and terror in his home country before being stopped. “We don’t want to focus too much on the past,” his companion says in a statement that could be the play’s thesis, “we’re trying to focus on what our experience has been like coming here and having to learn a new culture.” While it is true most refugees respond the same way, “Stories” would have been a stronger piece of theater had CCT allowed the more painful and bloody aspects of the refugee experience to shine through.
While the unconventional structure of “Stories” makes it a tricky task for the actors, Tenisi Davis, Olivia Florence, Meghan Magner, Maher Mahmood, Elizabeth Reynolds and Shihabeldin Seewa all succeeded in creating a strong community on stage and weaving through comedic bits, informational exposition and a few dark moments with ease. Magner, the most charismatic and extroverted of the bunch, does particularly good work as does the dignified Reynolds. Mahmood and Seewa, actual refugees from Iraq and Sudan making their stage debut, bring a touch of much-needed authenticity to the piece (and will only continue to become more confident and comfortable actors as they keep performing this play).
“Stories of a New America” is a good piece of theater – touching, inventive and informative – but it’s more than that. It’s a much-needed introduction to the refugee experience, a chance to learn what life is like for everyday people from many countries and walks of life who are bound only by the persecution they fled from and the life they seek in a country that offers challenges, opportunities and, more than anything else, shelter. “Shelter means compassion for people,” a Cuban character says near the play’s end, “here, shelter, this kind of community for all the people who don’t know where to live, is really kind of symbol of compassion for all the people, isn’t it? Compassion for me is the central value of this country.”
Now that’s a message that goes beyond protests and politics. One every American should be reminded of again and again.
“Stories of a New America” ran February 16-18 at Erector Square in New Haven. For more information on CTT or to find out about booking “Stories for a New America” for your venue, visit socialchangetheatre.org.