Tim Robbins and his Actors’ Gang ensemble unpack the immigrant experience in “The New Colossus”
By Christina Campodonico
A Turkish academic fleeing political oppression. A German Jew on the run from the Nazis. A black woman escaping slavery in the South. Young lives impacted by war.
These are some of the stories that have swirled on The Actors’ Gang stage since early February, when the company premiered “The New Colossus,” a theatrical work taking place across time and space, eras and countries, barriers and borders in a kind of no man’s land between escape and freedom.
The play begins with its ensemble of 12 — each from a different region or nation — introducing themselves, then frenetically packing up all their worldly goods into suitcases, explaining why they have to leave their homeland in a cacophony of varying tongues. Each character on stage is based on real people the cast composited through research on friends, family members and historical figures who immigrated to the U.S. over the past three centuries.
After dodging patrols and hopping fences, they come to a dock, where they wait, and wait and wait — their future in a new land uncertain, much like the millions of Syrian refugees scattered across the globe, whose exodus initially inspired The Actors’ Gang to explore themes of forced migration last year in a precursor to “The New Colossus” called “The Refugee Project.”
That workshop production took place in the wake of President Trump’s travel ban. “The New Colossus” occurs in a world warped by even more Trumpian polices and verbal gaffs, continuing its critically-acclaimed run on Saturdays through May 12.
The Argonaut spoke with Academy Award-winner Tim Robbins, the artistic director of The Actors’ Gang and the show’s director, and five cast members about making sense of immigrant histories in the Trump era.
Why was it important to revisit your work from “The Refugee Project?”
Tim Robbins: When the Syrian refugee crisis was happening and the United States was wavering about accepting them or not, and then when the campaign happened, and then all of the xenophobic rhetoric and racist rhetoric from the Republicans, it just felt like that really needed to be addressed, this idea of what it is to be an American, because their version is not the truth. And our job is when people are hypocritical or lying or not being held accountable, artists can be the conduit through which society can deal with some of these things.
And so we started workshopping it, and I realized that there were some really important stories to be told that reflect on who we are as a country. And the more we work on it and the more research we do, the more admiration and respect I have for the incredible courage it takes to actually leave the place that you love to seek freedom somewhere else. That’s a big thing. And that’s a big thing whether you’re doing it in 1868 or 2017. It’s a huge, huge challenge.
As actors, how did you go about developing your characters?
Onur Alpsen: I was thinking about telling my story and my artist friends’ [stories] who are struggling in Turkey because of censorship. But during the workshop production, a close friend of mine in Turkey, who was a research assistant in the university, he signed a petition. A lot of academics signed this petition, and a couple months later the government took action against them by suing them, by taking their passports, by firing them from universities. And then [my friend] got into a depression because he lost his job. And he killed himself a year ago. So before the show opened, a couple months before, I decided to change my story. I decided to honor his name and I developed a character around him.
Paulette Zubata: What was interesting and wonderful about starting this process was first approaching my family and being told so much about how they came to this country. It’s an ever-evolving kind of discovery, research-wise. It’s like this bottomless pit of information in my family. Doesn’t matter if they’ve told me everything — it’s always beautiful new details about their country, about their journey. This process has helped me start these conversations with them. That’s so beautiful.
Kayla Blake: I knew immediately that I wanted to share the story of my family’s immigration. My grandfather was a famous magician, and they were in Malaysia performing when WWII began and the Japanese invaded. So when trying to decide who to play, it just felt more natural to play my mother. And I play her when she’s nine years old. She’s very proud of our history.
Jeanette Horn: I’m a first-generation American. My entire family, for the most part, are refugees [of the Holocaust]. This is my grandmother’s story. I didn’t know her, but I heard a lot about her and I’m named after her. [My Dad], he kept timelines and I went back and looked at those. My mother went back to Germany to meet my father’s relatives in 1934. And when we discovered that, I cannot imagine why she did that, or how that happened, or how she got out.
Why did these stories take on urgency after Donald Trump says something like “shithole countries?”
Robbins: Because we’re all from ‘shithole countries.’ [laughter] … I don’t think we’re here to provide answers, but to raise questions and to consider the actions of our leaders as something that should be put to question. Our job is to find the humanity in these stories and the truth of that humanity, and let the audience decide for themselves. … Who are we as a country? What does it mean to be an American? And who are our ancestors?” Unless you’re one of the less than 2% indigenous people in this country, you’re an immigrant. And chances are you were a refugee from something really horrible that was happening somewhere else in the world, whether it was the 17th century, or the 21st.
Zubata: If there’s no face or there’s no soul to these names, it’s very easy to disregard them. But if you really introduce a person to someone and show them humanity and show them —
Zubata: Yeah, I think that I have an urgency at least for my story, especially now to connect a face to a name.
Stephanie Lee: The urgency for me was when we had first started doing this workshop for “The Refugee Project,” my grandmother had just passed away. … My character is based on a recollection of stories that my family has told me about their time in the Vietnam War. Her name is Ly My Dung, and it is a combination of my last name, my mother’s name, and also my aunt’s name.
What’s really important for me in playing this character is to give dignity to the faces that had to flee a civil war in their own country. Like my grandfather and many other Vietnamese, they were somebody in their country, and then when they came here they all just had to start from nothing … that’s what this country is, coming from nothing and making it into something great and grand.
If Donald Trump or someone like him came to see this show, what would you hope they would learn?
Zubata: I really hope that they see the humanity of each of these people. Take away all the dates, the years, the gender, the country, and just saw a human trying to be a good human and trying to survive — that’s it.
Horn: They said with the Holocaust, it was “Never again,” well it is again. Hitler said he wanted to make Germany good again. And took [it out on] the scapegoats. It was the homosexuals, or it was the elderly, or the ill, or the gypsies, or the Jews, they were to blame for everything that was going wrong and everything that was going bad for the Germans. … So I would hope someone of that ilk, who feels that way, could be here and could see that these are all individual human beings.
Kayla Blake: Hopefully, after seeing this, they realize that one of their ancestors was an immigrant and think about how they would feel if what they’re doing now was happening to
Tim, if Donald Trump came to the show, what would you want to say to him?
Robbins: ‘Ticket price is $34.99.’ [laughter]
Robbins: I would hope that they could see humanity and the individuals involved. I’d also remind them that how the world thinks about us is defined by its immigrants. … The character of this country was not made by white elites. The character of this country was made by indentured servants that escaped to start families with Indians, indentured white servants that started families with African slaves … people that challenge the social order at various times in our history.
Immigrants defined who we are. The reason why we have a five-day work week, a 40-hour work week and a concept called “the weekend,” the reason we have minimum wage, the reason we have any of these progressive things that didn’t seem possible at the turn of the 20th century are because of the hard work of immigrants — the collectivity of them, the organizing of them, unions that formed and the progress that they agitated for. The abolition of child labor, the introduction of environmental protection laws, all of these things happened because of immigrants. Not because of the white elite.
Hollywood was started by immigrants. All of the great art, all the great music that we consider to be American music was started by people who were refugees or kidnapped Africans or immigrants.
How did you come up with the title?
Robbins: “The New Colossus” is a beautiful poem by Emma Lazarus. … The key line is, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. … Send me the wretched refugees from your teeming shores.” We didn’t want just the successful people. That’s not what that says. It says, if you’re lost, if you’re in the storm, if you’re in turmoil, this is a place where you can come and find community. It’s a pretty beautiful ambition for a country.
Horn: My mother used to tell the story all the time when she came — they came on a boat — and when they passed the Statue of Liberty, there wasn’t a dry eye. I mean people were literally weeping with joy at having made the journey. She would talk about that at home all the time. What that meant to her was huge, huge. … To have an opportunity to live freely without having to fear your government — that’s pretty powerful stuff.
“The New Colossus” plays at 8 p.m. Saturdays through May 12 at The Actors’ Gang, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. Tickets are $20 to $34.99. Call (310) 838-4264 or visit theactorsgang.com.