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The Actors’ Gang brings the huddled masses to Hancher, Tim Robbins talks mythic courage and national identity

The Actors' Theater presents: 'The New Colossus'

Hancher — Saturday, Feb. 29 at 7:30 p.m.

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Quonta Beasley and Stephanie Lee in ‘The New Colossus. — Ashley Randall

“… cries she / With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …’” — “The New Colossus,” Emma Lazarus

The New Colossus, directed and co-written by Academy Award-winning actor, Tim Robbins, was created in collaboration with the Actors’ Gang, the 39-year-old, Los Angeles-based company where he serves as artistic director. The troupe will be performing it at Hancher Auditorium on Saturday, Feb. 29 at 7:30 p.m., with Robbins in tow. Tickets are $10-20.

The play tells a story of 12 people in different decades and their journeys to a new life in the United States, shown through movement, music and poetry. Even with its namesake and story, the idea of Ellis Island and Emma Lazarus’ famous poem didn’t come till later in the creative process, Robbins said.

It began as a collaboration between company members and a collimation of family immigration stories the actors were told by their family.

“For the most part, it’s their own families’ recognition of all the different machinations of what it was to be living where they were and how difficult the journey was,” Robbins said. “All of those were written from personal accounts.”

The play may seem to carry a strong weight of significance in 2020, but Robbins said the play is applicable no matter the time period.

“Perhaps it does have more impact now. However all those problems existed before we started,” he said. “I think the story is universal and the story would have been just as significant when the whole wave of Irish immigrants came at the end of the 19th century.”

The cast of ‘The New Colossus.’ — Ashley Randall

The idea that we are all connected by immigration in America is something that truly inspired Robbins and his company.

“In this time of incredible division and hateful rhetoric, we do share a common story, most of us — if you’re not indigenous, if you’re not African American, whose ancestors were brought here against their will, if you’re not either of those two, you are from somewhere else. You have descended from someone who made a choice.”

The play has been touring since its original run in Charlotte, North Carolina. The reception has been beautiful, Robbins said, noting that many more amazing stories were told after the performances at the talkbacks with the cast.

“We hear amazing stories, stories of survival. One woman said, ‘Let me tell you about my grandmother’,” Robbins said. “She was eight years old. They put her on a boat in Europe with nothing but a photograph of a relative. Eight years old and she lands in New York Harbor, no address — and somehow finds her family. And that woman is sitting in our theater because of that eight-year-old’s courage and her strength, and her ability to survive.”

Robbins finds something almost mythic in the strength and courage it takes to try to build a whole new life in a new country.

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“We’re descended from the spirit of the person who said ‘No, I’m going to risk my life’,” Robbins said. “Then once they landed, somehow — often not speaking the language, oftentimes with nothing, no money — somehow survived and created future generations. That’s a pretty extraordinary story, and it’s a story we all share. It’s the hero’s journey, it’s mythic, it’s the kind of person one would want in their country.”

Jeanette Horn, Pierre Adeli, Stephanie Lee, Dora Kiss and Zirko Petkovic. — Ashley Randall

The play’s synopsis raises the question, “Who are we as a nation?” Robbins feels that immigrants of any time period are often faced with the same adversities placed upon them by people of power.

“This happens and has happened throughout our history, and it’s usually some kind of people in power, whether its politicians or wealthy businessmen that are driving hateful rhetoric,” Robbins said. “What it forgets is you’re just a couple generations away from being an immigrant. It’s shutting the door behind you. It’s not what this country is about; it’s not what historically this country has been about; and it’s sad to see this division rising in support with so many people in positions of power. It’s frightening, but it’s not a new thing. It’s something we have done historically every time there has been a wave of immigrants.”

Robbins hopes The New Colossus will remind people of the immigration in their past, or that it will encourage people to start researching their own history if they don’t know it. Most importantly, he hopes it will bring people together in the theater.

“This is what we want to do in theaters for the Actor’s Gang, this idea that it is about the audience, that it is about their shared emotions,” Robbins said. “It is what theater should be all about: not about distraction — about involvement.”


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