When creating a new play, the first question to ask is “What makes this night different from all others?” In other words, why do people need to hear what I’m saying right now? To be compelling, there needs to be a definitive answer to that question, even if the answer is that today is exactly the same as every other. As an audience, we need to know why we are experiencing the action of this specific work right at this moment.
In the case of The Refugee Plays, an evening of five short plays by various authors conceived during the lead up to the 2016 presidential election, and running in the FRIGID Festival, the answer is that current racial tension fueled by divisive politics has citizens, residents and guests of the United States reeling. In the wake of our new president’s inflammatory travel ban, a rise in hate crimes across the country, and a general sense of uncertainty about what the future holds for immigrants and their families, this is a worthy subject to bring to the stage today. Unfortunately, the plays that make up the evening are frequently too mired down in the broad scope of a difficult subject to answer the “why now?” question and fail to tell the human stories that would lend it depth. In a shifting, increasingly divided world that oscillates daily between confusion and fear, there is room for a more nuanced theme than xenophobia and racism are bad.
While this lack of dimension is felt a few times throughout the evening, there are also some particularly bright, human moments that shine through. Mónica Quintero’s frantic, charismatic performance in Carlos Castro’s Mickey’s Confession as a former Latin American television star turned Times Square street performer takes an abstract issue and tells a relatable story with it. The final piece, Charles Gershman’s Morning After, may not live in reality, but is the most interesting approach to the question of American attitudes toward the crises of immigrants and refugees. Two young men wake up after meeting and hooking up the night before, one is late to brunch with his father, the other is a Syrian refugee who is hoping to stay a little longer than the one night stand. The tone dips back and forth between serious drama with a straight face and sitcom, but Michael Witkes and Andres Robledo both deliver strong performances that manage it well. The grounding of a larger question in this small, confusing, intimate moment is exactly what a short piece of theater needs to do to effectively engage with a subject as large as The Refugee Plays attempts to.
What makes this evening valuable is not cohesive success as a theatrical presentation, it is its effort to raise a few voices up in response to a huge, unwieldy question. Works of art in times of crisis need to rise above gimmick and tell specific, human stories with no effort to present sweeping solutions to the world’s problems, but do the work of connecting audiences intimately, emotionally to problems beyond themselves. Not every moment lands, but The Refugee Plays does contain strong moments that do bring that specificity. And they are enough to make it worthwhile.