A New Nation has found the right city, the right moment and the right place at the Anacostia Arts Center this month. As national headlines bear down on this administration’s Muslim travel ban, zero tolerance immigration policy, and withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council, this collection of vignettes about immigration, family, and home speaks truth to power.
The mission of Convergence Theatre shines through their Guerilla Theatre Works model of multimedia “snapshots,” partially drawn from the actors’ own experiences. As a self-proclaimed “home for socially conscious artists who wish to spark dialogue between diverse communities through new theatrical structures,” Convergence leverages movement, speech, video, audio, poetry, puppetry, and projections to inspire empathy. The pieces are designed to be transportable, for example a recent rehearsal held at the Families Belong Together Rally. Each element succeeds in varying degrees.
The movement pieces of A New Nation impart the strongest impressions. The performers, especially Cristian Amilo Linares and Fabiolla da Silva, execute Elena Velasco’s choreography with strength and tenderness. The performers all support each other with the grace of ballerinas and channel their bodies into characters and objects: they lift up a mother to float through the air, barricade a refugee from escaping, mount fences, and push down walls. In the most striking snapshot of the production, the performers use tape, rags, and plastic bags to evoke a scene in which two children are seized from a mother, thrown in garbage bags, and dropped out of reach; then, the plastic-clad officials return to bag the mother herself and carry her out of sight. The trust and bravery in that scene show how strong of an ensemble team they make.
The tragedy of each snapshot interludes well with video interviews projected on the wall, many with “America First” supporters. In one television special, a woman says her “elevated sense of justice” rejects illegal immigrants who do not try to assimilate in her town. Her interview, along with every other border wall advocate, is spoken in a casual tone that sharply contrasts to the desperation of the immigrant characters.
Some of the poetry hits home. Lines such as “I’m sorry that I take up all that space. I’m hopelessly three-dimensional,” and “Am I dirt? Am I that to be built upon?” stick to memory. But the beauty of the poetry is how it offers up meaning to be interpreted by the listener, not hand-fed to them.
Guerrilla Theatre Works: A New Nation
closes July 29, 2018
Details and tickets
A New Nation falters when its takeaways go too far. The moving ritual of a mother brushing her daughter’s hair and pinning it with butterfly clips starts delicately, then repeats as a recurring projection of butterflies in several scenes, and later transmutes into both the butterfly necklace and butterfly t-shirt of a puppet child in a later scene. By the end, the metaphor of the migrant butterflies grows tired. The most affecting moment of the production occurs when the performers make intense eye contact with each audience member, and grill them with increasingly forceful immigration interview questions: “Where is home for you? Where are your parents? What is your full name? How old are you?” But the power of this inventive moment to put you in someone else’s shoes is immediately undercut by an overblown Nazi Sieg Heil that pulls you out of the scene and back into the theater.
So too does the Statue of Liberty appear a few too many times in the production: in speeches, in song, in masks, in props. Yet to listen to a multilingual cast speak and sing of Lady Liberty in many different languages also reminds audiences to revisit Emma Lazarus’ 1883 sonnet, “The New Colossus,” which raised money for the statue’s pedestal and is inscribed on a bronze plaque inside the Statue of Liberty Museum:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “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!”
Just last week, activist Therese Patricia Okoumou scaled the Statue of Liberty on July 4 to protest the Trump administration’s practice of separating migrant children from their families. Her words after her arrest, borrowed from Michelle Obama, bring immediacy to this poem and production. “‘When they go low, we go high.’ I went as high as I could,” Okoumou said.
Although A New Nation goes a little too high at times, the education they provide as artists and activists is worth the climb.
A New Nation . Devised by Convergence Theatre collective . Directors: Natalia Gleason and Elena Velasco . Ensemble: Fabiolla Da Silva, Cristian Linares, Sebastian Leighton, Karoline Troger . Costume Designer: Bria Gilbert . Set Designer: Tom O’Reilly . Sound Designer: Drew Weinstein . Movement for plays: Elena Velasco . Lighting Designer . P. Precious Porter . Projections/Media Designer: Tewodross Melchishua . Stage Manager: Sophie Barden . Produced by Convergence Theatre . Reviewed by Kate Colwell.