“A New America” Speaks

In one of several extraordinary moments in Thursday’s performance of Collective Consciousness Theatre’s Stories of a New America — a play being performed this weekend at Fair Haven’s Collective Consciousness Theater — all the members of the cast addressed the audience, talking about the moment of realization about being in a new place — because they “could hear the quiet — no bombs, no bullets, no shelling, no militia.”

It illustrated one extreme of the refugee experience, the type often overlooked in the vigorous debate surrounding current events. By choosing to focus the script on anecdotes and observations like this, the cast and company gave the full house a number of quiet moments, where rigorous political jargon could be forgotten for a moment to make space for empathy.

Work on Stories of a New America began over three years ago, the script was compiled from nearly 100 hours of interviews conducted over the course of two years with families served by the CT branch of IRIS (Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services), particularly focusing on refugee (as opposed to immigrant) families. Each member of the six-person cast — Tenisi Davis, Olivia Florence, Meghan Magner, Maher Mahmood, Elizabeth Reynolds, and Shihabeldin Seewa — moved effortlessly from role to role, in many cases focusing on one character, but serving as an ensemble to help flesh out vignettes relayed by others.

It would be wrong to accuse this play of trying to proselytize or take advantage of current events, yet without naming those events directly, this production serves as a rebuke to some of the nationalist and xenophobic talking points currently playing out in the national conversation. The fleet 45-minute show follows several refugees — a union leader from Cuba, an Iraqi student, a doctor from Chad, a mask-maker from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and others — and their observations on the process of integration and acculturation into life in the United States. A light-hearted moment early in the play described one character’s astonishment at watching people run for pleasure and exercise. Later, multiple characters agreed on their bewilderment at being introduced to a neighbor’s dog, and at being assured that the dog was friendly.

Adam Matlock Photo Stories should also be credited for not attempting to cast the refugee experience as a monolithic one. In one poignant scene, Olivia Florence, portraying an Iraqi student, repeated some prejudices she’d heard about black and Latino Americans from people in her home country. As she repeated them, members of the cast turned away, then slowly turned to re-acknowledge her as she talked about how her experiences in the United States were starting to change her mind. Similarly, the show acknowledged conflict between refugee and immigrant groups as much as it hailed the solidarity that sometimes forms between them — a complex reality that cannot always be addressed a charged debate.

Using the fluidity of theatrical language, director Jenny Nelson was able to weave the refugees’ stories smoothly, landing butterfly-like on one and drifting to the next, without losing continuity. Several sequences presented a sort of super-cut of quotes and phrases detailing initial impressions of America, both positive and negative, and it was to the cast’s credit that these moments moved quickly while easily balancing humor and poignancy.

The play never offered any external exposition beyond what the characters give, and this was never a problem. Even with minimal staging in the black box theater, it was easy to distinguish the anecdotes and characters — though sometimes, the production chose to obscure those distinctions, to simulate the overwhelming noise of being in a new country where you don’t understand the language. In one scene, multiple characters gave a series of overlapping answers to job interview questions, being cut off by the supervisor in the midst of articulating their skills. These moments served as much to illustrate sensory overload as they did to reference experiences many refugees share.

Despite the timeliness of the content, the appeal of the show would be the same in any period as it was Thursday night — to see a cast with great chemistry present stories about which they are genuinely enthusiastic. Each member of the cast had chance to step out as a solo performer,  but it was seeing the ensemble work together, and seeing their collective belief in the stories they told, that made the production truly shine.

Fielding a question in a post show talkback, Ashley Makar had a simple answer to a question about how her work at IRIS has changed in the month since the new presidential administration has come to power: “Advocacy”. On display in this production was a complex example of self-advocacy by proxy, where the words and feelings of refugees resettled in Connecticut were elevated beyond mere talking points into a complex tapestry of experience.

Stories of a New America runs at Collective Consciousness Theatre, 319 Peck St, Building #6, 2nd Floor,  Feb. 17 and Feb. 18 at 8 p.m. There is a brief talkback session with staff from IRIS and members of the cast after each performance. Click here for tickets.

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