“Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door! — from “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, 1883
Amid the Melting Pot that it is America comes a play based on the ideals immortalized at the base of the Statue of Liberty. A play that finds the common thread of humanity coursing through the diversity of immigrant stories.
The importance of hearing, reminding and repeating those stories is at the heart of “The New Colossus,” a theatrical experience developed by The Actors’ Gang in Los Angeles, coming to Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City on Saturday night (2/29).
This new collaborative project by director Tim Robbins and a dozen actors uses the voices of 12 immigrants from 12 areas and 12 eras to weave a tapestry of remembrance and enlightenment told through their sacrifice and courage.
Live music, poetry and movement propel the play, based on the actors’ refugee relatives, ancestors or friends and shaped since 2017 through research, workshops, in-progress productions and refinement.
It debuted in Los Angeles in February 2018 and toured South America in January 2019.
“Each time we come back, it takes on a new depth,” Robbins, 61, co-founder and artistic director at The Actors’ Gang, said by phone from a recent tour stop in Seattle. “Each night is pretty electric.”
Long known for his commitment to social causes, this Academy Award-winning actor, writer, director, producer and musician, best known as the star of “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Bull Durham” and writer/director of “Dead Man Walking” films, Robbins described “The New Colossus” as “visceral, emotional.”
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“It’s stories being told, but there’s also stories being told in the silence, and there’s stories being told through the movement,” he said. “There’s a period in the play where they’re waiting for a boat and it’s really cold, and they have to find a way to make a fire — and just that is telling a huge story, a common story that all of us understand.”
Audiences will meet Homayun Dideban, born in Isfahan, Iran, in 1937; Mehmet Fatih Tras, born in Adana, Turkey, in 1984; Anna Margaret Wong, born in Borneo, Malaysia, in 1943; Yetta Rothschild, born in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1870; Ly My Dung, born in Dalat, Vietnam, in 1953; Sadie Duncan, born in Tensas Parish, Louisiana, in 1830; Gabriela Mia Garcia, born in Puruandiro, Michoacan, Mexico, in 1970; Elin Matilda Nylund, born in Kronoby, Finland, in 1885; Aranka Markus, born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1933; Mirko Petkovic, born in Mokro Polje, Yugoslavia, in 1922; Tatyana Iosifovna Birger, born in Moscow, the Soviet Union, in 1961; and Helga Schmidt, born in the Alpbach, in the Austrian Alps in 1888.
Most of the stories are related in English, but when passages are spoken in the person’s native language, supertitles will provide English translations.
Immigrant stories “are all around us,” Robbins said. “I think we tend to forget that we have a common humanity. Theater can remind people — particularly in these times when we’re so divided — that we have so much in common. ...
“I have faith in the humanity in people, and I’ve seen it. There have been people who came to our play in North Carolina who were Trump voters, and came out of theater with a different perspective.
“It’s like this. If you think about it, when there’s an emergency — a flood, a hurricane — people help others. You don’t look at the color of their skin, you don’t ask them where are they from before you help them. We have this in our hearts, and we have compassion, it’s just that we aren’t being encouraged to go there,” he said.
“It’s been my experience with this play that it’s bringing people to a common ground and (it’s) a reminder of the collectivity of our story as Americans. What was driving the people who got on those boats to seek religious freedom in the 17th century; the thing that was driving freed slaves to get up north in the northern migration; the thing that was driving the Irish to get away from famine and find a new and better life for themselves; and the thing that is driving people to head 500 miles to the border today — it’s a common experience, a common desire.
“We’re descended from people that said, ‘No. No, I will not tolerate this oppression or this famine or this racism or this fascism, communism in my former home. I won’t tolerate it, I’ve gotta get away.’ That’s in all of us.”
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Most of the show’s host venues station a large map in the lobby, inviting audience members to place a pin in their country of origin. During a matinee in Los Angeles, Robbins said that for the first time, the pins were predominantly placed in one area: Mexico, Central- and South America.
“We talked that day about what it is to make that journey, and whether it was their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents. The way that the rhetoric is now, it tends to frame a false narrative,” he said.
“What the real story is — and the story that we should be telling and you should be telling about your fathers and your mothers and grandparents — is that this is a heroic journey,” he said. “It’s a hero’s journey. It’s mythic. It’s overcoming tremendous obstacles and somehow surviving it and creating a future for you. That’s a hero.”
Robbins steps onstage at the end of every performance to encourage audience members to share their family’s immigrant stories.
“I ask if there’s any indigenous people in the audience, because if you’re not indigenous or African American, at some point, there was an immigration story of some kind,” he said. “And with African Americans, we tell the story of migrations within this country — the migration north after the Civil War, when freed slaves were being threatened by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and headed north to find freedom.
“Then I’ll ask the audience if there are any refugees or immigrants in the house, and a couple hands will come up — every venue has a few people, and I ask where from and what year. Then I ask if there’s any sons or daughters of immigrants or refugees, and more hands come up. And then I ask if there’s any grandsons or granddaughters of immigrants or refugees and more hands come up. Great-grandsons or great-granddaughters, and eventually the whole audience has raised their hand.”
The lobby maps fill up, as well, creating a picture that he said is “probably unique to this land — the diversity of our audience.”
The project encapsulates The Actors’ Gang mission stretching all the back to its 1981 origins.
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“(We were) a bunch of restless roguish college kids that wanted to do a kind of theater that was infused with energy and a common interest in punk rock at that time. We wanted to bring that vital anarchic energy to the stage,” he said.
“ ... What we’ve endeavored to do over the years it to create something unlike any other kind of theatrical experience — something that is deeply rooted in a commitment to the truth, but also in conveying that truth in a direct way to the audience.”
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• What: The Actors’ Gang: “The New Colossus”
• Where: Hancher Auditorium, 141 E. Park Rd., Iowa City
• When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday (2/29)
• Tickets: $20 adults, $10 college students and youths; Hancher Box Office, (319) 335-1160, 1-(800) HANCHER or Hancher.uiowa.edu/2019-20/ActorsGang
• Extra: Director Tim Robbins will lead a conversation with the cast and audience following the show
• Show’s website: Theactorsgang.com