Woven through “Babylon: Journeys of Refugees” by Sandglass Theater is a version of the American debate about immigrants and migrants and refugees. “It’s our obligation to open the door when someone in danger knocks.” “I don’t know why our country is supposed to care so much about immigrants.” “A person’s life is never a bad investment.” “How is this our problem?” “Is it our responsibility to help everyone?” “This is about our history and the harm that we brought elsewhere that now rolls back on our beaches.”
The show is presented by Brookline’s Puppet Showplace Theater at Suffolk University’s Modern Theatre in Boston from Jan. 24 to 26. Each performance is followed by a conversation with local refugee advocates and Boston community leaders.
Sandglass Theater is known for “combining puppets with music, actors, and visual imagery.” This is puppetry as part choral singing, part slam poetry, part experimental theater spectacle. These puppets are life-like sculptures of people, a few feet tall, operated by rods in the arms and a handle at the back of the head, animated by a cast of five performers (Shoshana Bass, Keila K. Ching, Kalob Martinez, Raphael Sacks, Alan White) in full view of the audience.
“The puppeteers and puppets share the stage. And by animating the puppets in the open, as it were, I think we make the point that we are channels for how these stories are told,” Sandglass co-founder and “Babylon” co-director Eric Bass says. “…We are telling other people’s stories in this show. We do not presume to become these characters. That’s why puppetry is a good way to tell these stories.”
“Babylon” begins with a montage of puppets running, balancing, being tossed about as images, tableaus appear and dissolve. Throughout the show there are visions of puppets are caught in a border fence like a net; refugee camps; rafts; a beating and torture; a caterpillar crawling across the floor; men with rifles, long lines of refugees snaking crossing wastelands.
“When you walk long enough, when you walk far enough, do you leave a life behind?” the cast sings.
Bass says work on the show began before the 2016 presidential election. Ines Zeller Bass, Sandglass co-founder (and his wife), who made the puppets for the show, “is German. So looking at Europe we were hit by the impact of refugees maybe before it was quite so big a story in the United States.” And after visiting El Salvador for a theater collaboration, he says, “It struck us very powerfully because we’d been down there and to some extent had seen the impact of gangs on children.”
A friend introduced them to Amila Merdzanovic, director of United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Vermont, which led to opportunities to speak with refugees resettled in Vermont.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there that people are really passionate about,” Bass says. “We want to give voice to people’s concerns.”
“Babylon” tells of an Afghan woman, a Burundi man and daughter, a Salvadorian boy fleeing violence and war in their homelands. A Syrian man rides a boat turned back at the coast of Greece. “It is death to return to our country.”
“They’re all amalgams of people’s stories,” Bass says. “One man told us about his shoes. When you walk 200 miles, there’s nothing left of your shoes. … Another man we talked to had been in a refugee camp for 20 years and it had become the closest thing to a home. … And a number of stories that were considerably more gruesome than that.”
A man in southern Vermont told them of his mother’s flight from Afghanistan. Bass says, “When the Taliban came to her village and she had to flee, she only had a minute to grab something, so what she took was 50 pounds of flour, which she carried on her head, not knowing when she’d next have food to feed her children.”
The image is incorporated into “Babylon.” Puppeteers sing, “Take something quick, the rest you lose. How can the children still be fed?”
Bass says Sandglass “can’t look at what people call the refugee crisis detached from the ways U.S. policy has made that inevitable or set it in motion perhaps.”
He adds, “What we hope for is that we listen to each other’s stories, that we not just look at a situation and throw up our defenses against it, that we find ways or create ways to hear what people are actually experiencing, so we make our decisions on a more real connection.”
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