The news from Syria was staggering: By mid-2015, some 300,000 refugees had fled Syria by crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Here in Minnesota, Dominique Serrand and his partners responded to that number as directors of a theater company would: “We said, ‘That’s a show we need to do.’ ”
This month, they’re doing it.
The Moving Company is staging a play at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis that is set at borders, including Syria, Mexico and the former Soviet Union. In nine chapters, “Refugia” tells refugees’ stories, which the theater company built with the help of news reports, interviews and testimonies. “I hope the show moves people,” said Serrand, the play’s director, “gets them to engage, understand and feel closer to what these people are going through, which is abominable.”
Across Minnesota, very different arts groups are tackling the same charged topic, one close to the state’s heart: immigration. Stories of refugees and takes on immigration policy are popping up onstage, in photographs, in galleries. Some projects and performances were spurred by recent politics, including President Donald Trump’s travel ban for citizens of six Muslim-majority countries. Yet most groups, including the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, planned their themes of migration and immigration long before the election.
In recent months, that theme has taken on new urgency.
“It’s accentuated it, made the edges harder,” said Bruce Karstadt, institute president and CEO. “It’s made it even more relevant, more timely. But it’s also made it more treacherous, because we are so divided, so polarized.”
This month, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra is hosting a weekslong festival called Where Words End, using Nordic music to explore ideas around migration. This spring, local presses seeded bookstores across the Twin Cities with free cards featuring poems about immigration and identity. History Theatre staged “The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin,” the story of a Chinese man who came to the United States during a time when it forbade those from his country.
That plot seemed ripped from the headlines, as they say. But playwright Jessica Huang has long explored immigration, partly because of her own family’s journey. She spent years investigating the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first law barring a specific ethnic group from the United States. That law, which prevented legal immigration by Chinese people from 1882 to 1965, did allow those with American parents to live in the United States — a loophole that led to a brisk business in forged documents and false “paper” fathers.
Harry Chin became a “paper son,” settling in St. Paul and working as a cook at Nankin Cafe in downtown Minneapolis. While doing research at the Minnesota History Center, Huang came upon his oral history, listened to his voice. She then spent hours interviewing Chin’s daughter, Sheila.
When Trump issued his executive order, the play “became far more relevant than I ever expected or wanted it to become,” said Huang, a Minneapolis-based, multiracial playwright. “It was horrifying.”
Played onstage by Song Kim, the Chin character was haunted by ghosts from his past, secrets he hid for years. It was one way Huang tried to show that “there are personal consequences to all of this policy,” she said. “Policies that are … bigoted and racist affect individual people in a deep way that can last for generations.”
Changing ‘attitude first’
By telling such stories, art can change “attitude first, then behavior, then policy,” said Jack Reuler, artistic director of Mixed Blood Theatre. “Sometimes you can do them all at once, and sometimes you have to do them sequentially.”
For decades, Mixed Blood has featured stories of immigrants in its old firehouse station on Minneapolis’ West Bank, a “neighborhood primarily populated by immigrants and refugees,” as Reuler points out. Theater in general, he said, ought to be grappling with the world’s most pressing issues, acting as a conduit for disparate points of view. “Being a little specific to us: We live in the most densely populated Somali community outside of Mogadishu, and the president has a travel ban on people from Somalia,” Reuler said. “If we ignore that, who are we as real stewards of the public conversation?”
In March, Mixed Blood premiered “Safe at Home,” a drama about baseball and immigration, staged at CHS Field in St. Paul. Audiences moved throughout the stadium — the nine scenes played out in sites including a luxury suite and a locker room — as the drama built: Will the Padres’ ace pitcher, a native of the Dominican Republic, take a political stand on immigration?
“It took this very American thing, baseball, and this very American thing, democracy, and it found the intersection of the two and looked at them through nine different lenses,” Reuler said. The script, written by Gabriel Green and Alex Levy, also had key moments of political prescience.
At one point, a few politicians weighed their options.
“Latinos will be pissed, but they’re not crazy,” a fictional Gov. Alison Shelby said. “What’s the alternative? Voting for a bigger wall? Latinos aren’t going anywhere.”
The line got knowing laughs from audiences that might have assumed it was a late addition. But it was written months before Trump campaigned on building the wall at the border with Mexico, Reuler said. “There were a lot of those things that really played themselves out.”
From Jan. 20 to March 5, the gallery at the American Swedish Institute was filled with the faces of Syrian refugees. “Where the Children Sleep” launched a yearlong theme of migration, identity and belonging. With that exhibit and others, the institute has been tying the stories of early Nordic immigrants to those of today. To make those connections, it must work through “a skewed notion of history,” Karstadt said.
For example, at gatherings of people of Swedish heritage whose families came to the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Karstadt has heard prayers for dinner that end with some version of this: “Let us give thanks to our forefathers, our ancestors who immigrated to this country. They didn’t have a dime; they didn’t get any assistance. They didn’t get any help.”
“And at that point, if you were impolite,” he said, “you’d raise your hand and say, ‘Let’s talk about the Homestead Act,’ ” which allowed immigrants and others to claim acreage for free.
The Syrian refugee crisis is at the heart of an event on immigration at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. But this time, the children are behind the camera.
“Through Their Eyes” features photos taken by Syrian children at settlements throughout Lebanon. The exhibit will be on view in the museum’s Regis Fountain Court through May 14 and is part of “Global Movements: A series of programs on (Im)migration.”
The photos “underscore that among the experiences these kids are having, they’re still just kids, playing in a mud field,” said Elisabeth Callihan, the art institute’s head of multigenerational learning. “It humanizes the story in compelling ways.”
Museums nationwide are “trying to be more topical,” said Callihan, who organized the “Global Movements” program. The four-day event includes the documentary film “Without Papers,” as well as a storytelling session with Nimo Farah, a Somali spoken-word artist from Minnesota. On Saturday, artist Cy Thao presented “The Hmong Migration,” his epic series of 50 paintings that’s part of the museum’s collection.
Thao started painting that series, which depicts the Hmong people’s journey from Laos to Minnesota, as a way to explore his own identity. But it quickly became a way to tell a larger story to a bigger audience, including children and those who are not Hmong. He appreciates that a huge institution such as the Art Institute is convening conversations tackling immigration, especially at this time.
“Art is probably a good avenue to have that political dialogue,” said Thao, a former state legislator. He drew a distinction between art that encourages empathy, rather than more aggressive works such as the naked Donald Trump statues that popped up in cities last year.
“That grabs news and attention, but it pisses a lot of people off,” Thao said. “Those are the people that you want to bring around, right?”
Since he completed his Hmong migration series, Thao has been focusing on his assisted-living business, with some fishing on the side. But lately, he’s been kicking around an idea for another series: the history of Minnesota, from American Indians to 19th-century European immigrants to immigrants of today, he said.
“It would tie everyone in,” Thao said. “I like the idea of tying everyone together in a neat little package.”