Immigration. Refugees. Displacement. These are all politically charged terms, especially in light of our current administration. So how does an elderly white American man fit into all of this? Personally, I don’t think he does, but The Moving Company feels otherwise, as he and his story bookend their new show Refugia.
That’s all you really need to know about the show, but I’ll share some other thoughts.
Refugia is presented at the Guthrie Theater as a series of nine chapters, each telling a different story. There’s a Jewish couple fleeing to Israel, a group of women escaping from the horrors of Aleppo, a young man who decides to join ISIS, a girl at border patrol attempting to enter the America. And a polar bear in the desert. And a white man in a nursing home.
According to statements in this MinnPost interview, director and co-writer Dominique Serrand talked to people who know refugees, as well as read articles and books, but from the sound of it they didn’t speak one-on-one with refugees themselves. How do you confidently put on a show when you haven’t had a face-to-face conversation with the people you’re setting out to portray? Serrand also says that the show is about people who literally cross borders. Going back to the elderly white man: moving into a nursing home because your family needs help taking care of you is absolutely nothing like fleeing your country to escape persecution for your religion or your race.
How much privilege is there in nursing home accessibility? All of the privilege, that’s how much.
How much privilege is there in fleeing your homeland? Basically none, save for the fact that you’re still alive.
Comedic moments can help lighten a heavy topic, but I found most of Refugia’s humor incredibly off-putting. In the last chapter, there’s a character who audibly identifies as non-binary who is over-the-top flamboyant and adds no depth to the piece. It’s unnecessary to perpetuate this stereotype purely for humor’s sake, and I had higher hopes for The Moving Company.
In the border patrol chapter, Christina Baldwin wears a fat suit and is repeatedly told, “Congratulations!” by the men in the scene who think she’s pregnant. Fat shaming for comedic effect: aren’t we more progressive than this? Baldwin is in fact a thin woman, so why is her wearing a fat suit even part of the show? The Moving Company both discriminates against full figured women by removing them from the equation and makes fun of them for actual experiences some of them have had.
It’s insensitive and ignorant to reduce groups of people to caricatures like this.
The border patrol chapter portrays how horribly outsiders can be treated, as the girl seeking asylum is referred to both as “he” and “it” even after they learn she’s female. She never speaks and is viewed as an object. While I understand the point of this, we don’t actually get to know her story. Who is she? Where did she come from? Where is her family? Where does she go next? Overall, the show is grossly white-centric, and this chapter is one of the reasons.
I appreciate the desire to tell many different stories, but the brevity of each chapter isn’t enough time to dig into the characters, learn about their motivations, and provide opportunities for growth. Because of this and the fact that the oppressed characters have very little actual dialogue, we don’t have time to fully empathize with them and their situations. The ironic thing is, I walked out of the show feeling like the stories would have had more impact if there had been no dialogue whatsoever.
Much of the movement is intriguing and well choreographed, and I can’t say enough good things about Riccardo Hernández’s set. It’s expansive, versatile, and modern. There are just enough subtle moving pieces to provide a variety of entrances and exits, and the clean lines don’t overshadow the performers. I’d go so far as to say it’s one of my favorite sets that I’ve come across. Of course, that’s not enough to make up for the rest of the show, but I’d remiss not to mention it.
Another aspect I noticed is that the majority of the dialogue comes from men one way or the other. As a person on Facebook pointed out (the comment appears to have been deleted but I had screen grabbed it; please forgive grammatical and spelling errors and also note that tickets are actually $26-67), the one time a black woman is featured, it’s a scene where she has no speaking part.
Spoiler alert: the show ends with the old white American man walking around the stage talking about history and coming from the same place and growing together while the other performers who played the roles of the oppressed walk around him silently. Then they all sing a song together like everything is going to be a-ok.
What message is The Moving Company sending to their audience? They’ve both silenced the oppressed characters and given them a singular voice instead of allowing them to have individual voices. I identify as a female person of color with an immigrant mother, and it saddens me to not have found any reason to connect to this show. I commend them for their attempt at inclusivity, but if you’re looking for an authentic story of displacement, I’d implore you to look elsewhere as Refugia is short-sighted, white-centric and indulgent.
Consider these companies instead: