Los Angeles has always extended a welcoming hand to immigrants in need. During the 1930s and '40s it was home to some of Europe's most famous artists and intellectuals, many of them refugees from the fascism that gripped their continent.
So it's poetically fitting that L.A.'s performing arts community has found inspiration and solidarity during a period of anti-immigrant sentiment that undoubtedly would have stirred members of the old L.A. intelligentsia, such as Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, to a fiery rage. Throughout L.A. County, several arts organizations have simultaneously yet independently fixated on the American immigrant experience as a cause célèbre:
—The Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts at Cal State Northridge. (aka the Soraya) has devoted much of its current season to the subject, with evenings of theater and music devoted to stories of Mexican, African and Irish struggle and assimilation.
—The Actors' Gang is creating a play, The New Colossus, that delves into the family histories of its 12 performers, focusing on their ancestors' journeys from oppression to freedom. It opens Feb. 17 at the Ivy Substation in Culver City.
—And East West Players is staging Allegiance, a musical based on the internment experiences of George Takei and his family when the celebrated Japanese-American actor was a child during World War II. It opens Feb. 21 at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center's Aratani Theatre in Little Tokyo.
Immigrants became a high-profile piñata on June 16, 2015 — the day Donald J. Trump declared his candidacy. "They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people," Trump said in his infamous speech. He was talking about America's immigrant Mexican community, but the comments also seemed ominous to many living in this country who weren't born here.
The moment stuck with Thor Steingraber, executive director of the Soraya Center, although it didn't immediately translate into concrete programming choices.
"It was a little over a year ago when I said to my team, 'You know, it would be interesting to look at issues of immigration and migration, which are two halves of a whole.'?"
During a presidential campaign in which immigration was a constant hot-button topic, Trump's controversial views remained front and center. "A year ago or more (these issues) were particularly relevant," Steingraber says. "My question was, 'Will they still be relevant a year from now?' Lo and behold, they are even more important now."
The remainder of the Soraya season includes Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, a mariachi opera featuring Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, which tells the tale of two families divided by the Mexican-American border (Feb. 16-18); Dublin Irish Dance's Stepping Out, which looks at Irish history, including the great American migration in the 19th century (Feb. 25); and Underground Railroad: A Spiritual Journey, performed by soprano superstar Kathleen Battle accompanied by the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers, an evening of spirituals that weave together the story of American slaves' perilous journeys to freedom in the northern U.S. and Canada (March 29).
Steingraber thinks we're living through a moment when the arts are galvanized by fundamental disruptions in the political climate. It takes something monumental to create such a reaction, he believes. "I would say the AIDS crisis was like this. It brought us Angels in America and other important work." Steingraber recalls that even operatic warhorses such as La Traviata and Don Giovanni were produced in a way that responded to the AIDS epidemic.
Though it has its historical parallels, the current rupture in America's social fabric is also unique in some respects, Steingraber says.
"I think what's interesting about this moment and makes it different from all the others is that it's so wide and so pervasive. I don't think there's anyone who isn't in some way immediately affected — whether it's by seeing what's happening in their communities or to their friends or colleagues or employees who are struggling with this challenge," he says. "I teach on a campus that's full of Dreamers. The confusion and fear are palpable here. This is an important moment for the arts, and they are stepping up."
Chance meetings lead to a Broadway show
Allegiance, based on George Takei's early life, was inspired by a chance meeting one night in an off-Broadway theater.
"My husband and I had gotten to the theater a little early," says Takei, who despite his early fame as a Star Trek regular has devoted much of his career to the stage. "There were two empty seats in front of us. Two guys came in — one Caucasian, the other Asian. The Asian guy recognized my voice and we started talking."
A second chance meeting with the same couple the next night at Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights led to a more revealing conversation. One of them had noticed Takei crying during the song "Inutile." "I told him the song reminded me of teenage conversations I had with my father when I was trying to reconcile what I read in the civics books, the shining ideals of democracy, with my incarceration" in internment camps set up by the U.S. government in the wake of Pearl Harbor for Americans of Japanese descent.
Takei wondered why his father hadn't protested his family's treatment as they were being interned. "He said, 'I had you and your mother and brother and sister to worry about, and they had guns pointed at us. What would have happened if I protested?'?"
That theater-loving couple, Lorenzo Thione and Jay Kuo, helped mold Takei's story into a musical called Allegiance — Thione served as producer and writer, Kuo as composer-lyricist. A decade later, after a record-breaking premiere at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre and a Broadway production starring Takei and Lea Salonga, the show comes to the Aratani Theatre, co-produced by East West Players and the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center for its Los Angeles debut. Takei reprises his two Broadway roles.
"It felt like an important story when I first heard it," recalls Thione, who emigrated to the United States from Italy. "I felt tremendous empathy for the plight of people who had everything taken away from them for reasons tied to prejudice and fear — that knee-jerk reaction when something bad happens and you find the simplest way to rally against a common enemy. We knew the show would be relevant in 2008, just a few years after 9/11. What we never could have imagined was how relevant it would feel now."
Takei was well aware of the show's resonance during its 2015-16 Broadway run. At a rally in December 2015, Trump called for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on."
"When Trump made that statement, we immediately recognized the relevance of our story to what he was talking about," Takei says. "I sent (Trump) a personal invitation to see our musical, and followed it up on the morning and evening talk shows. He never came."
Takei chuckles. "However, we put a great big sign in the orchestra section that said, 'This seat is reserved for Donald Trump.' During intermission a queue would form in the aisle as people would take selfies with that sign. So we kept the issue alive."
The experience has strengthened Takei's long-held belief in theater's power to shape great debates. "From the time of the Greeks, art has played an important role in public social commentary, and I think that's part of its attraction. Angels in America is coming back to Broadway, and it got great reviews in London. Once again, it's very relevant to our times."
Unearthing family secrets
At Actors' Gang, founding artistic director Tim Robbins and his company had been workshopping a piece about the refugee experience several years before Trump came to power — not surprising, as consciousness-raising and political commentary have always been among the company's principal calling cards. Now 59 and silver-haired, the Oscar-winning actor has always maintained a close relationship to the scrappy theater he helped create in 1981, and its work reflects his progressive, humanistic outlook.
"We started this exploration during the Obama years, when the Syrian refugee crisis was beginning," Robbins recalls. "We saw the reluctance of certain countries to take in refugees, not only here but in Europe. And we started discussing what it means to be a refugee. We have a very diverse group of actors, and I asked everyone in the company to do some research and tell their own family's story of migration."
The result is an evening-length work featuring a dozen separate stories that span the globe over several centuries yet are connected by a common thread: the need to escape oppression and danger. During a pre-rehearsal group interview, four performers describe the background of their narratives.
"I'm telling a story about a close friend of mine from university in Turkey," Onur Alpsen says. "He signed a petition to support peace. (He was) a research assistant. Later on the government took his passport; (the university) fired him. He couldn't apply to other universities because he was classified as a terrorist. He killed himself a year ago." Alpsen's story also includes "my friends who are struggling against censorship for freedom of speech right now in Turkey."
Quonta Beasley's character, Sadie Duncan, is based on her great-great-great-aunt. "My story is actually part of a larger story about blacks in the South around the time of Reconstruction. I'm telling it through my ancestor, who was sold away into slavery. The rest of it is an amalgamation of true stories that happened in Arkansas and other places. It's about persecution in the South and escape to the North."
Stephanie Lee plays Ly My Dung. "I'm telling a story of this young woman who is fleeing Vietnam after the fall of Saigon to go to Paris to find her son. It's based on what my family has told me about the war in their country. And the spirit of this character is very much my mother and my grandmother, living in Saigon post-fall, having trauma from the war and needing to escape their country and find a new home."
Paulette Zubata focuses on Gabriela Mia Garcia, her mother's friend, and her journey from Michoacán, Mexico, to El Norte, beginning in 1993. "It was necessary in a town where opportunities ran out. She finally came to the understanding that to find a job ... that was morally just, it would have to be up in the United States."
"A lot of the challenge for the actors was simply getting information from their families," Robbins says. The pressures of assimilation, coupled with a desire to leave the past in the past, meant that many family stories had never been brought to light. "It's interesting because it opened up doors in their relationships that they'd not been exposed to," Robbins says. "Information about who their parents actually were, what their journey was. Some of the actors have told me that their relationship with their parents is better as a result."
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Robbins and his actors discovered a common thread to the stories during rehearsal — a revelation that he hopes audiences take home with them.
"No refugee is leaving their country because they hate their country. They're leaving because it's not longer safe for them there: lack of food, lack of free speech, a power shift that leaves them in a very dangerous position. Most are fleeing certain death.
"This notion that they're coming here because they want to sap our social services is so misguided," he says. "Most of them would love to be back home if their countries weren't in turmoil. Our country has been defined by its open doors, and the concept of 'illegal immigration' is relatively new. In fact, I think the character of our country has been defined by our immigrants."
In Robbins' view, the nation's indigenous art forms — rock music, jazz, musical theater, Hollywood — owe a fundamental debt to its immigrants. "American culture is so rich because many, many different people from all over the world have become one strong voice — the American voice. We can't ever deny or forget that."