“Refuge” is a powerful, poignant, thoroughly entertaining insight into the immigration issue

photo by Jay Towns Photography

You can’t read the news these days without reading something about the immigration issue at our southern border. Children are still being separated from their parents and held in detention centers. GOP governors are playing “gotcha” with their democratic counterparts by shipping large groups of immigrants north, and Republican candidates for public office still decry the problems created by the “illegals” as if there is something inherently wrong with seeking a better life. America was built by immigrants, but we seem to be conveniently forgetting that lately. In doing so, what we are actually forgetting is humanity. No one would be able to act this way if they did not first emotionally strip these people of their status as human beings. Not everyone shares Donald Trump’s opinion that these people are criminals, drug runners, and rapists. But too many of us can’t see them as intrinsically worthy either because we don’t see the personal side of immigration.

Theo Ubique’s new play, Refuge, should be required viewing for everyone on either side of this issue. I don’t think it is possible to see this amazing piece of theatre and not be moved by it. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll never see immigrants the same way again. This is, without a doubt, the most emotional experience you are likely to have in a theatre this year. My kids talk about the “feels” that a work of art brings out in you; this one unleashes a veritable tsunami of them.

Refuge, by Satya Jnani Chávez and Andrew Rosendorf, is meant to be experienced. Its complex blend of narrative, music, folklore, puppetry, and magic, along with text that flows freely between Spanish and English, is difficult to explain to someone who has not done so. I will, however, try.

Set in the aptly named Desolation, Texas, Refuge focuses on three main (human) characters: an old White rancher (Bill Kalinak), a Latina woman named Martina (Devon Carson) who works for the US Border Patrol, and a young girl (Tatiana Bustamante) who has come all the way from Honduras in order to get to America and find her mother. (She’s a determined kid; at one point she tells us that she has been caught and deported five times already, but she’s still here.) The girl was a part of a group of forty immigrants who were abandoned in the desert by their coyote (trafficker). We see two others, a mother and her baby, both of whom are dead; Martina knows it does not look good for the rest of them.

There are also several animal characters (puppets designed by Adolfo Romero and performed by ensemble members), including Steph, the rancher’s faithful old dog, a prowling rattlesnake, and an ancient and perpetually hungry lobo (wolf) who exists both in the real world and in an alternative dream reality. All three of these animals play important roles in the plot.

There is also another character whose presence looms over the play: the rancher’s daughter Sarah, now dead seven years, though of course the hole her passing left in his life is still wide open. He numbs his permanent pain by smoking pot…an irony the play comments upon, since so many refugees are smuggling the stuff.

After Sarah was murdered, the rancher planted a Seguaro cactus in her memory, as she had always loved them. He had to bring it from Arizona, as they don’t grow in Texas. The death of that cactus, along with the bodies of the mother and her baby, is a stark reminder at the start of the play that the desert forgives nothing and, out here, muerte is inevitable: so many different things can cause it, and humans are only one of them.

That the girl makes her way through that desert to the rancher’s home is not any surprise. Neither is the arrival there of Martina, who has been tracking her. Actually, we see that, in the desert, things pretty much always play out as you’d expect. People and animals die. The endless game of sneak over the border, get caught and deported, then repeat goes on and on and on. But the girl protests from the start that she isn’t playing any game: she needs to find her mother, a needle in the haystack of America, and acts as if that is her destiny. (Maybe it is: there does seem to be something predestined about her appearance at this ranch.)

Co-directed by Chávez and Valen-Marie Santos, Refuge is mesmerizing from its first seconds. The ensemble tells the story through dialogue and song, and, although the girl speaks nothing but Spanish, even those who don’t know olé from hola should have no trouble following what is happening. (I do have a smattering of Spanish (una pequito de español), so I base this opinion on my husband, who is one of the aforementioned people who no hablan la lingua, yet had no problems whatsoever.) And the songs, led by Laura Murillo Hart—who accompanies on guitar—and sung by a very talented ensemble, are haunting and powerful even if you don’t know all of the words.

Of course: this show’s whole point is to bridge the perception gap between White American citizens and Hispanic immigrants. I don’t even want to meet the kind of person who is not moved by seeing it. Our country, our politics, and our world would be much better if everyone could.

Refuge is presented by Theo Ubique and runs through Nov 13 at 21 Howard Street Evanston. For tickets and information, please visit Theo Ubique or, call 773-939-4101. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.

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