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Tim Robbins' Actors' Gang mines 300 years of immigrants' stories in 'New Colossus'

Tim Robbins' Actors' Gang mines 300 years of immigrants' stories in 'New Colossus'
Cast members Kayla Blake, left, Onur Alpsen, Paulette Zubata, Jeanette Horn and director Tim Robbins of the New Colossus pose for a portrait at the The Actors' Gang. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

A play in which the cast acts out the real immigration stories of family and friends would seem to have "Trump" written all over it, but "The New Colossus" — the latest from the Actors' Gang, directed by founding artistic director Tim Robbins — was actually workshopped during the Obama years in reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis.

The current president, whose election campaign was driven by characterizations of Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists, just threw fossil fuel on the fire.

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"The New Colossus" has 12 actors, young and old, playing characters from different countries and eras, all woven into a single narrative about escaping an oppressive homeland, drawn to the beacon above Ellis Island.

"There's incredible strength and resilience in what a refugee or an immigrant goes through, particularly when the unknown is in front of them," Robbins says. "If you think about that as part of what the character of the United States is, this resilience, that's really defined by immigrants."

The Actors' Gang looked at what it perceived to be Trump's idea of America, Robbins said, and it was "just so antithetical to everything that we hold sacred here about diversity and inclusion. I looked around at our company, and we have people from all over the world, so I asked everyone to really think about their own families and how they found their way here."

Paulette Zubata of "The New Colossus"
Paulette Zubata of "The New Colossus" (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Paulette Zubata is portraying her mother's childhood friend who fled Mexico in 1993 after her town was overrun by drug cartels and corrupt law enforcement.

Onur Alpsen emigrated from Turkey last year, and initially his character was a composite of himself and his expat friends. But then a close friend back home, a research assistant, signed a letter protesting the Turkish persecution of academics, and he was fired and stripped of his passport. Depressed, he killed himself.

"I just want to honor him and people like him in Turkey who wanted more freedom, a free life, freedom of speech, and not going backwards in time but seeing the future," Alpsen says.

Cast member Jeanette Horn of "The New Colossus"
Cast member Jeanette Horn of "The New Colossus" (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Jeanette Horn is channeling her grandparents, Jews who left their town in southern Germany three weeks after Kristallnacht.

Her grandfather was from a family of seven brothers. "Only three made it here. The others died in concentration camps," Horn says, adding that her grandfather didn't want to leave Germany. "He kept saying, 'These guys are gangsters. They're going to go away. The German people are not going to let this go on.' He held on to that until the last moment."

A few years ago, Horn visited the town with her aunt, who recognized an elderly woman and started gabbing. She was a childhood friend who once called the authorities because Horn's aunt wasn't listening to Hitler on the radio. Her aunt was arrested.

"I said, 'And you shook her hand?'" Horn recalls. "I was aghast. She said, 'What good would it do now? She did what she had to do at the time.' There are so many more, small little horrors that happened that take the humanity away. The ovens and the concentration camps are larger-than-life horrific, but there are other small ways that you can die."

Kayla Blake of "The New Colossus"
Kayla Blake of "The New Colossus" (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

When Japan occupied Malaysia in the 1940s, Kayla Blake's mother and her family went into hiding. Blake's grandfather was a magician who ran a popular traveling circus — the troupe included his wife and kids — but he was also an American citizen, born to a Chinese cook for gold miners in South Dakota. The grandfather proudly wore an American flag tattoo.

"All of their magic — tents, everything — they just had to leave," Blake says, "because if they had not gone into hiding and the Japanese soldiers discovered he was an American citizen, he would have been executed. So they hid in a smelly, dilapidated pig farm, and there was worry every day about whether or not they would die of starvation. He always wore long-sleeve shirts, in the incredibly hot Malaysian sun, to cover the tattoo."

Other cast members play kin who fled Vietnam, Finland, Yugoslavia, Iran, the Soviet Union, Austria and Hungary. Quonta Beasley plays an African American ancestor who runs away from the threat of lynching in Louisiana.

"The New Colossus" is physical storytelling. The disparate refugees pack their bags, run around in terror, shiver in the cold and evade unseen helicopters, underscored with alternately somber and urgent cello and acoustic guitar.

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Cast members of "The New Colossus" perform during a dress rehearsal.
Cast members of "The New Colossus" perform during a dress rehearsal. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

"We try to physically manifest what the struggle is, to go from one place to another, and the difficulty of that, and the danger of that," Robbins says. "Part of the common story is the idea of running away or leaving something that is full of danger."

The sparse dialogue is an overlapping mixture of English and native languages as characters recite letters to loved ones about why they're leaving or describe what they loved about their homeland and how oppressive it's become. Robbins says the company has supertitles ready to go, but during a recent run-through, characters often simply said their lines in their native language followed by English.

The title is taken from the Emma Lazarus poem on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, and the play ends with a call-and-response recitation ("Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free") in English and the 12 different languages. Then Robbins turns and asks the audience: "Should we let them in?"

During rehearsal the cast sits around an invisible fire and offers, with quavering voices, the unpleasant consequences if they had not immigrated to America. Robbins interrupts and has them redo the scene: "Can we do this again with no sadness?"

Even in a dark time for those hoping to escape to America or those already here — a time when, as Robbins suggests, "the beacon has dimmed" — the play leaves no space for despair.

"You see their journey and how they won't stop, still trying to get on that boat to America," Blake says. "So it is a really powerful story of hope."

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘The New Colossus’

Where: The Actors' Gang, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City

When: In previews starting Thursday, opens Feb. 17, ends March 24; performances 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Tickets: $20-$34.99, Thursdays are pay what you can

Information: (310) 838-4264, www.theactorsgang.com

See all of our latest arts news and reviews at latimes.com/arts.

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