The mission of Portland Ovations is to present a diversity of offerings and be inclusive with regards to whom the performances represent as well as who is able to participate and enjoy. We may not always get it right but sometimes we do. Such was the case with Sandglass Theater’s Babylon.
Immigration and asylum seekers are in the news often these days. It is hard to know how to even begin to comprehend what this journey is and for many, continues to be every day. Only the people who have gone through this experience will know how hard it can be, and even after all of their hard work, permanent citizenship isn’t always guaranteed. Having to fill out forms similar to the n-400 is just the start of the application process and one that many people go through to have the chance to start a new life every day. As a new Portland Ovations Board Member, sponsor of this performance through Coffee By Design, Vice Chair of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center Board, Mom and local resident, this piece and the partnership with Sandglass Theater, a company which specializes combining puppets with music, actors and visual imagery, brought the journey to life.
As a participant in what I now refer to not just as Babylon but the Babylon Experience, I knew that this event was going to be bigger than I had imagined based on the trailer I viewed online. Working with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, Sandglass Theater crafted a piece, which blends the experience of many into four stories. Performed by puppets and actors with moving panoramas, Babylon is the voice of Syria, Afghanistan, El Salvador and Burundi. It is the story of today’s refugees.
When we held a welcome reception for the Sandglass performers the night before the first show at Coffee By Design on Diamond Street, a number of guests were invited but the people who showed up were immigrants. As the cast discussed the process of creating the piece and the physical, emotional and spiritual challenges refugees face, we decided it was important for the cast to know to whom they were speaking. Each of the guests shared his/her name and story. There was silence in the room. It became clear that this show was important. It was their story. It was felt that after each performance one of these New Mainers should be part of the Q & A session. Alain Nahimana from Burundi, Zoe Sahloul, Lebanon and Kifah Abdulla Iraq answered the call without hesitation.
The next day, there was an invitation to participate in a board game, Refugee Journey, developed by the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. We each were given a packet with information about who we were, where we came from and who our family members were. There were pieces representing family members, food, money and health. As the game began, we were told we needed to leave our homes now and had five seconds to write down what we would bring with us. We then each took turns drawing cards as we tried to make our way across borders and onto a plane for resettlement before the allotted time for the game had ended. The road to get there included run ins with militia, border patrol, family members taken and gone missing. Choices needed to be made about when to give up valuable resources and which family member to surrender in order to save others. The emotions in the room were palpable. It was only in the last five seconds of the game that someone “won.” We were told there rarely is a winner which reinforces the statistic that only 1% of refugees worldwide are resettled. The one immigrant in the room who participated shared his own memories. I personally know this gentleman well but had never heard him speak about his own experience in detail.
Part of the community outreach included during Babylon was a daytime performance of the show to a group of immigrant high school students. The result which some feared might be traumatizing proved to be quite the opposite. Yes, there were tears but the experience was somehow cathartic. It gave voice to the students, which for some reason they had not until now been able to fully share.
I myself attended opening night performance. The intimacy of the small theater at Portland Stage reinforced the intensely personal nature of the show. It was riveting from start to finish. No sooner had we made it through one “person’s” journey than we were jumping into the next. The show touches all ages, all people as was clear the following evening when my 13 year old daughter attended and was given the choice to leave before the Q & A began and opted to stay.
For me, the arts help us better understand the world around us….to make some sense of who we are as a people, of our humanity. All too often the attempt is a valiant try. In the case of Babylon it was not just a try, it was. If you had the good fortune to be part of the Babylon experience, you understand. If you did not see the performance, be sure not to miss it as Sandglass Theater should surely return and continue the journey with us. It is important to note that Portland Ovations not only brought Babylon to Maine, but also helped bring it to life as the organization co-commissioned the piece. An excellent investment from which we all did and will benefit for years to come.
Mary Allen Lindemann
March 29, 2018