In Minnesota, our neighbors are becoming more diverse: speaking languages other than English, with different religions, and cultural differences we’re ignorant of—and sometimes don’t welcome.
Pangea World Theatre’s new production From The Ashes responds by re-creating the remarkable journey of refugees, migrant workers and immigrants of all kinds. Pangea’s Executive and Literary Director, Meena Natarajan wrote the play, returning to themes of bias against immigrants that Pangea explored in Shadowlines a decade ago.
“Then, 9/11 happened and the situation is worse now. As much as the report influenced the play, it was also the atmosphere of fear,” Meena Natarajan says. “What happened to the country, the way people are afraid to speak because of the laws being passed. It was important to speak out and what better way than a piece of theater?”
And what an amazing piece of theater From The Ashes is!
From the Ashes runs Thursdays to Sundays, from April 12 to APril 29, 7:30pm, at Pangea World Theater at 711 West Lake St. in south Minneapolis (612) 203-1088 or www.pangeaworldtheater.org
Traditional western theater is based on linear plot: beginning, middle and end. From The Ashes stands on East Asian theatrical structures: need, desire and revelation. This opens up the play, pulls the audience in, goes for the gut and seizes the heart. Inspired by a Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights report: Voices of Silence: Post 9/11 Impact on Immigrant Communities, Natarajan also drew heavily on her background in India doing street theater.
“In the street, you stand in the center and people gather around you. There’s no distinction between the players and audience. That’s why I used the form of the street theater,” Natarajan explains. “We are speaking about ourselves—ALL of us are part of the community—whether we’re Caucasian or a new immigrant or native Americans who have been here a long time. That’s why I chose to write the piece in a way that relates to everyone. It’s really an Everyman or Everywoman story.”
Kinetic energy abounds, yet no choreographer was involved. The cast (of diverse ethnic identities) invented movement and dance that, along with chant, prayer, song and a gorgeous music of different languages (though still primarily English) makes for intense physicality. We’re propelled through different settings: those fleeing the terror of wars, encounters at U.S. Customs, and being seen as “not really American.” Charla Bailey is the only narrative character in this ensemble piece. On the run or trying to land, she echoes the displacement immigrants flounder in, expressing both desperation and dreams.
From The Ashes confronts current thorny political issues: deportation of undocumented workers, Muslim and Arab people treated with suspicion, loneliness, longing. I won’t reveal it, but there’s also a hilarious scene, worthy of the Colbert Report or The Daily Show.
From The Ashes gets under your skin. It penetrates with the possibility of connecting with all kinds of people we’re told NOT to accept but who are already part of our community. Surrender to this voyage of discovery that is as near to lived experience as theater can be.
Hear a conversation with Meena Natarajan, the play’s director, Dipankur Mukurjee and hear actors Katie Vang, Annelize Machado and Kattie Herron perform part of “From The Ashes” on “Catalyst”, archived at http://www.kfai.org
Lydia Howell is a journalist and arts reporter, and producer/host of “Catalyst: politics & culture”, Tuesdays 11 a.m., on KFAI 90.3 FM Minneapolis / 106.7 FM St. Paul