We all have a story about our ancestors, and when Oscar-winning actor and director Tim Robbins comes to town next week with The Actors’ Gang to stage “The New Colossus,” he wants to hear yours.
“The New Colossus,” being brought to Durango by New Face Productions, tells the true story of 12 people here today because the strength, tenacity and will of their ancestors, who in a lot of cases, fled their homelands to escape religious or political oppression. The play celebrates the courage and character of the refugees who came to the U.S. during the past 300 years. The ensemble cast reflects the diversity that has defined who the U.S. is as a nation. Set between the 19th century and present day, the play chronicles forced migration and the constant struggle for survival and dignity in an uncertain and hostile environment.
“We started developing it about four years ago during the Syrian crisis. I had a number of actors in my company for whom English was a second language – some that had immigrated when they were children, some who were immigrants themselves – and I wanted to develop a piece with them where they were able to speak in their own languages,” Robbins said. “We were talking about the refugee crisis, and we started asking the question, ‘What is a refugee? And what are those stories of those people that we see in those refugee camps?’ I asked these 12 actors to research their own ancestors, their own stories of fleeing from oppression to freedom.”
Robbins said the first time the troupe performed the show, it was in many different languages. The second time, the stories were translated into English, which is how it is performed now, although pieces of dialogue in other languages will be heard.
The Actors’ Gang was formed in 1981 and has toured around the country and five continents. The company is based out of Los Angeles and does three or four productions a year in LA. It has outreach programs in prisons and in public schools.
And as the company tours the U.S. with “The New Colossus,” Robbins and the actors are finding the show is bringing people together, and giving audience members the chance to think about where they came from.
“It’s a story about something that, as we travel through the country, from North Carolina to New York to Michigan to Seattle, we’re finding such an amazing commonality in the experiences of these 12 people,” he said. “I come out at the end and I talk to the audience and ask where people are from, where their ancestors are from, and we find some amazing stories. We’ve heard some amazing stories from people honoring their ancestors’ struggle and their ability to overcome obstacles, many stories of people’s ancestors that landed here with absolutely nothing and created amazing lives for generations of people.”
Along with the two shows Tuesday and Wednesday nights, there will also be a free special “LunchBreak” with members of the company that will be held from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College for all community members. The LunchBreak is being held in partnership with Compañeros and the FLC’s El Centro de Muchos Colores, including local moderators and panelists. “Brown bag” lunches are invited.
And for the company, “The New Colossus” is striking a chord with audiences, Robbins said, adding that people have come up to him after the show and told him they could see their story, their history, in the play.
“What I love about theater is it’s a real opportunity for a temporary community. On any given night, there’s a specific makeup of an audience and that will never be that way again,” he said. “The way we train at The Actors’ Gang is we train to acknowledge the energy and chemistry of an audience, and each night is different when we do this show. But each night has another level of understanding, another level of connection. And so each show teaches us more about the story we’re telling.”
The play also tells the stories of people who helped immigrants, including stories of people who harbored slaves escaping from the South in the Underground Railroad. Another story of migration the company tells is of a freed slave who had to get out of the South because of the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and was part of the Great Migration north.
“Whatever this collective DNA that we have that first of all said ‘No’ and then somehow survived and created the future, is something that we should celebrate,” Robbins said. “It’s a hero’s journey, if you think about it. There’s not a whole hell of a lot of a difference between the courage and tenacity and will of the person who was escaping for religious freedom in the 17th century and the people that are headed to our borders now risking their lives, sometimes walking 500 miles for the chance – for the chance – to create a better life for their children.”
One of the questions “The New Colossus” asks is, “Who are we as a nation?” And, even in these complicated times, Robbins said he is able to see hope.
“I’m glad I’m doing this right now. I’m glad I’m out on the road in all kinds of different areas of the country because I am discovering that we are a very compassionate people that understands that our stories are connected. And, I’m quite frankly appalled by the direction that certain members of our government are taking us. My hope is that reason and empathy and compassion will win the day, that people can find a great strength in that,” he said. “‘The New Colossus’ is a reminder that these are our neighbors, these are our friends, these are people that have made this country great.”