Putting the Refugee Experience on Stage
By JONATHAN MANDELL
Thursday, October 24, 2019  •  
Thu Oct 24, 2019  •  
Playwriting  •   0 comments Share This
"I think it is important to ask an audience to recognize lives that we have literally fenced off, that as Americans we are complicit in forgetting."

This season, a striking number of new (and returning) plays are exploring the plight of the displaced

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Arian Moayed, who was only five years old when he and his family left post-revolutionary Iran, was so moved by "the incredible images and heartbreaking stories" coming from asylum seekers on the U.S.-Mexico border that he felt compelled to do something. As a Tony-nominated actor (Bengal Tiger at the Bagdad Zoo) and the cofounder of the civic-minded Waterwell theatre company, he did what he's trained to do: "respond through empathy and art."

Over the past year, Maoyed has been involved with three pieces responding to this crisis: the plays The Courtroom and The Jungle; and The Flores Exhibits, a series of online videos in which theatre artists and activists read the testimonies of children being held in detention facilities at the border. They're part of a wave of works playing in New York this season that touch (to varying degrees) on the plight of refugees and deportees. Three -- Power Strip by Sylvia Khoury, The Hope Hypothesis by Cat Miller and The Courtroom -- are currently running. Border People by Dan Hoyle, Sanctuary City by Martyna Majok and a return engagement of The Jungle are slated for spring. (On That Day in Amsterdam by Clarence Coo, previously scheduled to run at the Cherry Lane Theatre this fall, has postponed its run.)

Each work is different in tone and approach, although three feature Syrian refugees entangled in bittersweet romances. All diverge from traditional immigrant tales since the characters didn't leave by choice, they were forced to flee. Legally, those who have escaped war, persecution or political turbulence but have not yet been granted official refugee status are called asylum seekers. According to the International Rescue Committee, there are currently more than 68 million refugees and asylum seekers worldwide.

Technically, the documentary theatre piece The Courtroom is about an immigrant, not a refugee. However, it's not about how Elizabeth Keathley came to this country, but how she was almost sent back to her homeland of the Philippines against her will. The play uses verbatim court transcripts to reenact her deportation proceedings, which she fought successfully.

Moayed's connection to The Jungle highlights one of the real-life ironies that surround that play, which debuted in the U.S. to much acclaim at St. Ann's Warehouse last December and is scheduled to return in April. The immersive work conjures an actual refugee camp in Calais, France that functioned as a vibrant, self-governing community for 11 months until it was bulldozed by authorities. A hit in London before touring stateside, the show featured several refugees from the camp in its cast. Three were citizens of countries whose residents were barred from traveling to the U.S. by the Trump administration. Moayed was hired as a consulting producer and also understudied their roles, just in case. Ultimately, the performers were allowed in thanks to a widespread campaign.

Dina Shihabi and Ali Lopez-Sohaili in
Dina Shihabi and Ali Lopez-Sohaili in 'Power Strip;' photo by Jeremy Daniel

Power Strip, currently running at Lincoln Center Theater's Claire Tow Theater, also takes place in a refugee camp, inspired by the notorious Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. Written by Sylvia Khoury, it focuses on a Syrian refugee named Yasmin (portrayed by Dina Shihabi, who was raised in Dubai), who lives a feral existence on a mound of dirt, making money however she can in the hope that she can save up enough to get smuggled into Germany. Her unlikely romance with fellow countryman Khaled (Darius Homayoun, also from Dubai) is no fairy tale.

Power Strip refers to the device Yasmin has jerry-rigged for her heater and cell phone, but it also describes what has happened to her life. In flashbacks, we learn that she was from a middle-class family in Damascus, the captain of her high school math team and engaged to a local soccer star. But then war and violence set her on a terrifying new path.

"What links together the refugee experience, the civil war and her rape is the deep humiliations that run through all three of those aspects of her life," explains Khoury. She wrote Power Strip because "the humiliation of a woman's body as a weapon of war, which is happening on a massive scale, is a story that hasn't been told."

A native New Yorker (who was herself captain of her high school math team and is now in her fourth year of medical school), Khoury grew up in a family of refugees. Her father was forced to flee Lebanon during its civil war, her mother's family escaped Algeria during its revolution. They met in France.

Khoury counts Ariane Mnouchkine's 2002 refugee drama The Last Caravanserai (Odyssey), which she saw a filmed version of in her teens, as a major influence. "That is probably my North Star in terms of writing about refugees," Khoury says. The details in Power Strip were pulled from informal interviews with refugees and international lawyers, discussions with director Tyne Rafaeli and the cast, and by reading Janine di Giovanni's 2016 book The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria.

Although visually Power Strip is abstract -- the set "is really kind of a wasteland" -- Khoury is specific and graphic about the conditions of the camp in her dialogue. At one point, Yasmin tells newcomer Khaled: "There are about 80 people per shower, 70 people per toilet. Rats in every tent. And snakes, so don't walk barefoot. Recently, there are even wild boars who attack at the slightest provocation."

"I think it is important to ask an audience to recognize lives that we have literally fenced off, that as Americans we are complicit in forgetting," Khoury says. "My personal take is that these subjects are uncomfortable, so the audiences should be uncomfortable."

Clarence Coo takes a more oblique approach to the refugee experience in On That Day in Amsterdam, at least initially. The play kicks off with a one-night stand between American Kevin (Jeffrey Omura) and Syrian Sammy (Abubakr Ali) in Amsterdam. They spend the following day touring the city before they both must leave, Kevin back to the U.S., and Sammy on the rest of his risky, clandestine journey to Sweden.

Coo visited Amsterdam for the first time right before the 2016 presidential election. He was struck by how easily he could museum-hop through Europe with an American passport while refugees were subjected to traumatic journeys through the same continent.

The feeling of displacement is something Coo understands well. He grew up in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines but didn't know about his status until he was a teenager. "It was jarring when my mom told me I was not a citizen or even legal," he says. "I didn't really know what my identity was."

His family was given amnesty in the 1980s, and Coo became a U.S. citizen in 2008. But his memories helped him imagine the life of a refugee.

Coo also features three historical figures in his play: Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh and Anne Frank, who serve as narrators, but tell their own stories as well. Living in different centuries, Coo says, each "had a relationship to the idea of home and movement and even immigration. Van Gogh had to leave his country, the Netherlands, and go to France to understand himself as an artist. For Frank and her family, Amsterdam was a place of refuge."

As much as the play is about migration, it is also about art and artists. Kevin, still in college, plans to become a writer; Sammy is a talented photographer. "Can an artist come from anywhere," Coo wonders, "or can an artist only come from places that have stable economic conditions?"

That question is given stark real-world resonance in the play. Woven into the plot are news stories of refugees who have died trying to make it to freedom. One is about a 22-year-old Kurdish violinist named Baris Yazgi, who wanted to attend music school in Belgium, but was denied a visa. So he embarked on a dangerous journey across the Aegean Sea. "His dead body was found in the water embracing a violin case," the narrators tell us. "Inside was his instrument as well as handwritten compositions."

"All these refugees who die are potential Van Goghs and Rembrandts and Anne Franks," Coo says.

Charlie O
Charlie O'Rourke and Soraya Broukhim in 'The Hope Hypothesis;' photo by Beowulf Sheehan

A pair of real-life stories inspired Cat Miller to write The Hope Hypothesis, produced by Voyage Theater Company and currently running at the Sheen Center. Her friend, an immigrant from India, was refused a green card because she did not have a birth certificate as they weren't issued in her small hometown. Around the same time, Miller read an article about ISIS establishing a full-fledged bureaucracy in the Syrian city of Raqqa.

So in Miller's play, a Syrian refugee and law student named Amena (Soraya Broukhim) hands in her birth certificate to an unspecified U.S. government office to begin the process of getting a green card. Alarms go off, sirens blare, lights flash and two FBI agents take her into custody on suspicion of being a terrorist because the flag of ISIS is stamped on her birth certificate. After all, they printed it.

What follows is an ever-increasing Kafkaesque nightmare played out firmly in the key of black comedy. The tone might feel off-kilter to some audience members, especially when we learn that Amena's father and brother back in Syria were killed in a U.S. bombing raid. But Miller says, "I felt like I had no other option. It is so painful to think about these things that you almost become desensitized to them. The only way I could write about it was to find the absurdity in it."

However much these plays vary, it's clear the global refugee crisis dominating the headlines is of great concern to theatre-makers. "Any story about a refugee makes a difference," Moayed believes. "The theatre's main purpose is to respond to the world around us."

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TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Power Strip. Go here to browse our current offers.

Jonathan Mandell is a drama critic and journalist based in New York. Visit his blog at NewYorkTheater.me or follow him on Twitter at @NewYorkTheater. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Darius Homayoun and Dina Shihabi in Power Strip. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.




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