Tim Robbins’ “The New Colossus” opens with chaos: twelve actors stand facing the audience, all speaking simultaneously but each in a different language. We hear them muttering in languages from Spanish to Finnish. One at a time, each speaks briefly over the crowd in English, introducing him or herself with age and nationality. They are all of different ages, from different countries and from different time periods, but hold one thing in common: They’re all heading for the same place.
“The New Colossus”depicts the journeys of twelve refugees traveling to destinations in the United States from 1830 to 2017. Actors use movement and gesture with limited speech to tell twelve powerful stories and thus the story of America. The touring show played at the Knight Theater at Levine Center for the Arts Jan. 28 through Feb. 2.
“The New Colossus”asks a lot of its audience. To begin with, there is very little speaking: the actors mostly communicate through movement and gesture, whether running, sleeping briefly, or desperately digging a hole to crawl under a fence. When the characters actually do speak, it is often in their own language, and the audience is only able to follow along through swiftly changing subtitles. Much of the time, the audience is forced into confusion and expected to be patient; like the characters we watch, we become bewildered and tired.
The play asks us, too, to suspend disbelief, even moreso perhaps than in a more common theatrical production. The actors appeared to be in their mid-twenties all the way into their seventies, yet they played characters as young as 9 years old up through middle-aged. There is also no set, (save for a screen in the background which displays real-life photographs of refugees throughout time) and costumes are simple. The actors are stripped of all crutches and the audience is asked to trust these actors for their few words and their physical movements. We are asked to go along with their characters; we travel with them through cold and rain, bombings and shootings, horrific encounters (of which we can only assume to know through the facial expressions of our guides) and crippling hunger.
In the few moments of brief monologue, we learn about each character, making us even more invested in the overall story. Ann Margaret Wong (Kayla Blake) is a nine-year-old girl traveling alone from Malaysia in 1952, escaping an oppressive government that threatens her family. Homayun Dideban (Pierre Adeli) is fleeing Iran; he is an intellectual and carries a briefcase. Gabriela Mia Garcia (Paulette Zubata) is fleeing Mexico in the 90s, a country she declares “run by criminals” and one where she sees a future only as a drug mule or a prostitute.
Each refugee despises the state that his or her country is in and explains passionately why immigrating seems to be the only option. At the same time, the relationship between the migrants and their homeland is not all that simple. Despite the occasion to repudiate his or her native country, each character also has the chance to share what he or she will miss about it. Some talk about the beautiful season changes or the art or the food. In particular, they talk about family. It is clear that the migrants love their own countries and don’t really want to leave; the point is that situations are so dire that they see no other choice. The New Colossus is definitely not American propaganda, especially considering the fact that one of the refugees featured is an American.
Sadie Duncan (Quonta Shannell Beasley) is a slave from 1830 Louisiana who is on her way north, finally deciding to escape after the horrific lynching of her brother. She remembers how her brother used to hold her as she cried, particularly one day when they were sold away, together, but apart from the rest of their family. “Jesus wept, too,” he said to her. “Jesus wept, too.” Through Sadie, we are reminded that America has not and is not always the land to which one escapes; it has also been the one from whence one escapes.
At the end, after an exhausting journey through land and sea, all twelve refugees make it to their destinations in America and the audience is asked through projected words, “should we let them in?” An audacious question: Not only did we now know them, but we felt like we had been them. How could we not?
Finally, all actors line up side by side on stage facing the audience. Behind them are projections of the real-life characters they had been portraying. Each one goes down the line and says his or her name, and we learn that not only were these people real, but it is their direct descendants who stand before us. For all but one character (who was portrayed based on historical research), the actor was his friend, his father, her mother, her aunt or her grandmother. These were not just characters, nor were they ghosts.
“The New Colossus”was bold. It asked its audience to listen to a different kind of story, one in different languages, one with little words and one with different pasts and presents and ages and lives. The audience was asked to not only observe these people but go along with them and get to know them, and then wonder about what these stories mean personally, to their own ancestry and to their own country. Perhaps it was a risk to ask so much of an audience, but when the play ended and the twelve actors stood vulnerably before us, we rose up in applause, with tears in our eyes and down our cheeks. It was evident that the risk was not only worth taking, but was necessary.