Tim Robbins’ ‘New Colossus’: Heartfelt Collective Storytelling

The cast of “The New Colossus.” Photo by Ashley Randall.

Don’t miss the national tour of “The New Colossus”  because you’ll get a chance to hear and be heard, and be part of the continuing story of this nation of immigrants and the national discourse on immigration. Sensitive and heartfelt, at times heart-breaking, these are true stories tied together by love–each actor has a personal connection to their role. Asian Americans are represented by an acrobat fleeing the Japanese invasion during World War II, a Vietnamese refugee who left before the fall of Saigon and an Iranian who left his country to settle in Colorado.

If the title “The New Colossus,” doesn’t ring a bell, a few phrases may: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.” The poem is no longer new. It was written in 1883 by Emma Lazarus as a donation to a fundraiser for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. The full text is below:

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!

According to the director’s notes, Tim Robbins, artistic director of the Culver City-based Actors Gang theater group, calls his “The New Colossus” “a movement piece” and he’s not talking about dance. It is “a calling up of ancestors, spoken in twelve languages” and it is “a story of the continuing journey” and “survival.”

Co-written by Robbins and the Actors’ Gang ensemble, and directed by Robbins, the piece introduces us to twelve people, the majority of them with suitcases. They are Iranian Homayun Dideban (Pierre Adeli), Turkish Mehmet Fatih Tras (Onur Alpsen), Anna Margaret Wong (Kayla Blake), Yetta Rothschild (Jeanette Rothschld Horn), Ly My Dung (Stephanie Lee), Sadie Duncan (Quonta Shanell Beasley), Gabriela Mia Garcia (Paulette Zubata), Erin Matilda Nylund (Kathryn Cecelia Carner), Aranka Markus (Dora Kiss), Mirko Petkovic (Zivko Petkovic), Tatyana Iosifovna Birger (Mashka Wolfe) and Helga Schmidt (Mary Eileen O’Donnell). That’s three women and nine men; people are from Africa, Latin America and West and East Asia.

The people represented were from different generations, with the oldest born in 1830 (Sadie Duncan from Louisiana) and the youngest born in 1984 (Mehmet Fatih Tras from Turkey). While supertitles are projected on the wall, you won’t really need them. From the babble of languages, and random English phrases, along with photos of real events projected on the wall, you’ll understand what is happening. Slowly, you’ll begin to see this disparate group of people, separated by time and language, as one mass of desperation clinging to hope.

In recent years, the Petrarchan sonnet “The New Colossus” has become a matter of contention. While then-President Barack Obama quoted it in a 2010 speech and described how Jews were being persecuted and driven out of Eastern Europe “little more than a century ago,” resulting in “one of the largest waves of immigration in our history.” From this came the words that would move a nation:

It was at this time that a young woman named Emma Lazarus, whose own family fled persecution from Europe generations earlier, took up the cause of these new immigrants.  Although she was a poet, she spent much of her time advocating for better health care and housing for the newcomers.  And inspired by what she saw and heard, she wrote down her thoughts and donated a piece of work to help pay for the construction of a new statue — the Statue of Liberty — which actually was funded in part by small donations from people across America.

In 2019, the acting director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, Ken Cuccinelli, referenced the poem: “Give me your tired, your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” Cuccinelli also stated the poem only referred to “people coming from Europe.”

For Actors Gang, the poem encompasses people from Europe, Africa and Asia.  The Actors Gang’s version of “The New Colossus” was inspired by West Asian-related incidents. The director’s notes explains that the ensemble “began working on this piece a couple of years ago” as a reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis where the “national discourse” had “an irresponsible tendency to speak of refugees as potential terrorists.” For their “The New Colossus,” Actors Gang made the problem personal and intimate. The performance is accompanied by live music–David Robbins on guitar and percussion and Mikasa Schmitz on cello.

Everyone in the cast has a real connection to their characters and you’ll learn more about them. Some of the ensemble members participated in “The New Colossus” South American Tour. Before the performance, people marked where their ancestors came from and Asia was not well represented except for the two markers I placed–one for each set of grandparents, but the cast brought Asian American stories to the stage. After the Culver City performance on Tuesday night, Robbins led the audience in some revelations about their own roots and the generational sufferings and immigration stories, by asking leading questions.  The American story is not one, but many different stories. The Actors Gang’s “The New Colossus” allows these stories to be told in a safe environment where everyone’s story is equally important. By remembering the past, we’ll be able to see who we are and we will appreciate the diversity of our country.

“The New Colossus” is currently scheduled to stop in the following cities:

January 28–February 2, 2020 / Charlotte, NC / Knight Theater
February 7–8, 2020 / Schenectady, NY / Proctor’s Theatre
February 14–16, 2020 / Detroit, MI / Music Hall
February 20–22, 2020 / Seattle, WA / Moore Theatre
February 25–26, 2020 / Durango, CO / Community Concert Hall
February 29, 2020 / Iowa City, IA / Hancher Auditorium
March 3–4, 2020 / Folsom, CA / Harris Center
April 9–11, 2020 / Nashville, TN / James K. Polk Theater

 

 

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