By Joe Contreras, Latin Life Denver Media
“Superb, astonishing, open and direct, a must see”, were just a few of the accolades following the opening night of the world premiere of REFUGE at the Denver’s Curious Theatre March 5, 2022. The five minute rousing standing ovation at the end of the production was a further testament to the excellence of this heart wrenching, thought provoking play.
REFUGE is the story we have heard many times before of migrants leaving their entire lives behind in pursuit of a better life. But this story is different as well as fascinating. Through puppetry, original music and superb acting it brings home the emotion and the reality of single migrant, a 17 year old girl from Honduras who has no choice but to migrate. She looks to reunite with her mother. After a 119 day trek it’s all or nothing for her, life or death. She has no choice. She can’t go back. She is all in. She has a name but that would give away part of the story. REFUGE also brings home the reality of empathy of who we are as human beings.
The girl is played by Satya Jnani-Chavez a Chicago based actor, composer and musician. In REFUGE she appears as a simple unassuming character that appears like any other female migrant worker you may across in the U.S. Along with Andrew Rosendorf, Jnani-Chavez is the co-creator this remarkable play. She is also the musical director for REGUGE. She has appeared in numerous plays including American Mariachi, Othello, Twelfth Night, Jesus Christ Superstar and Black Elk speaks. As a composer she has written original scores for Hamlet and Ophelia, Empanada, Life on Paper and several others. She wrote all the original music for REFUGE. It is all in Spanish.
The play opens with a mural of the Virgen de Guadalupe as a backdrop, designed by local muralist Carlos Fresquez. As the eight actors walk on stage to the strumming guitar of lead musician Mari Meza-Burgos they surround a decaying corpse. Meza-Burgos is an actor, singer and musician from Colorado. You may recognize her as part of Las Dahlias, an all female mariachi band that has performed throughout Colorado. Or maybe from the many plays she has performed in at Su Teatro or at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. She has also performed in Egypt in a multilingual version of Tennessee Williams Glass Menagerie.
A lady in a black veil is behind her, death. They leave and the lobo, the wolf appears. The puppet is handled by Sam Gilstrap, who also howls the wolf’s hunger and speaks its words. Yes, the wolf has a voice.
Like the migrant the lone wolf too has to do whatever it has to do to survive. It too has been abandoned by its pack. It is constantly hungry and its instinct to survive makes it drag off the leg of and other parts of the decaying body leaving only the shoes behind. The dead body appears that of a young girl carrying a baby.
When the desperate, exhausted and barefoot migrant girl comes along the shoes serve as a life saver. She is finally at the U.S. border and crosses into the farmland of an unwelcoming and hostile Texas rancher played by Curious Theatre regular Erik Sandvold. He has a Viva Trump water barrel marking the border line. He is tired of illegals crossing through his ranch land. He had a good hearted daughter who he believed had been killed by a migrant she was trying to help.
“Are you a good “wet” or bad wet?” he asks her as he confronts the barley alive migrant at gunpoint. This rancher has a faithful dog. A puppet handled by Lisa Hori-Garcia, an actress, director and writer originally from San Francisco.
She too makes all the dogs sounds and serves as its voice as well. The unforgiving hot desert land is also occupied by snakes. One of whom is handled by puppeteer Josue Miranda, a graduate from University of Northern Colorado’s Acting Program. He has appeared in a variety of productions across Colorado.
There is also the border patrol agent, an eight and half month pregnant officer who has been tracking this particular migrant for days and is close to apprehending her. The pregnant officer is played by GerRee Hinshaw, a local writer, actor, singer and producer with numerous credits and accomplishments of her own.
She has a supervising border patrol agent who could care less about the migrants and is only interested in his parodying the loud music he loves to listen too. This agent played by Sam Gilstrap, who also plays the wolf, has a dark side that slowly reveals itself by plays end.
What transpires next during this hour and half production is engaging, intriguing and at times even funny. It is not depressing but entertaining with all its music, puppetry and story twists.
Photo courtesy Curious Theatre
The play is in Spanish and English but is not a bilingual production. “Why should it be?” asked Producing Artistic Director for Curious Theatre Chip Walton after the play. “Just like when migrants enter this country, most speak little English and must figure things out for themselves. They don’t have translators. So too the audience must figure it out as well. “If you can’t listen and understand with your ears then listen and understand through your heart”, he told the audience while introducing the play.
Luisa Vigil, from North Denver told Latin Life Denver “It was a powerful production that ignites the emotions of the audience when dealing with compassion versus fear of immigrants. The acting combined with the music and skillful use of puppetry was indeed mesmerizing! The message of sacrifice and the tragic loss of life of so many that have attempted to illegally cross the border from Mexico into the U.S. was mind-boggling!” said Vigil.
Claudia Moran-Pichardo, Executive Director of Museo de las America in West Denver said she was impressed and how open and direct the play was in regard to dealing with the immigration issue. “They didn’t try to sugar coat anything in this production. It was direct and to the point” said Moran-Pichardo.
As for me, after being away from live theatre for two years I wasn’t sure REFUGE was the way I wanted to get back into it. I didn’t want go to something that I thought would bring me down after two years of Covid and all the depressing issues in dealing with that. Well, I could not have been more wrong. REFUGE was inspiring in that it gave me hope that people would see things in a different light, through another’s eyes, another’s shoes and appreciate their own lives while understanding the plight of others.
It’s like what Chip Walton told Latin Life Denver, “This play took three hard pain staking years and lots of hard work to bring this production to the stage. That is nothing compared to what migrants go through in their quest just stay alive.”
I can hardly wait to see REFUGE again and again.
REFUGE plays the Curious Theater now through April 9, 2022
1080 Acma Street, Denver, CO 80204