Refugee Stories on Stage
Lark Board Member Lori Steinberg first met Artistic Director John Clinton Eisner and Managing Director Michael Robertson at the opening night of David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish on Broadway, where they bonded over bourbon and big ideas about what art has the potential to do. John recollects, “...we spent the evening talking about issues David brought up in this bilingual play about customs, culture, economic disparity, economic distress, and why people travel from one country to another to seek opportunity.”
These issues seem even more pressing to me today, as the United States threatens to become a place that closes its doors on people seeking exactly those opportunities.
I recently sat down with Lori, who also sits on the board of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), to discuss ways in which theater might help us to understand what it means to be a refugee, in the hope of inspiring people to take action against injustice.
ZOË RHULEN: How did you get involved with the International Rescue Committee?
LORI STEINBERG: Great luck on my part! There have been occasions when travelling that I have very much felt like a stranger in a strange land. I can't even begin to comprehend how refugees must feel. So, after returning home from a trip to Africa I began advocating and volunteering with the IRC resettlement office in Phoenix.
ZOË: You’ve also worked in art therapy in the past. What do you think theater can do in this time to both educate and heal?
LORI: I taught photography as part of an art therapy program at the IRC. Many of the students were victims of torture. The intent was to show them what was still beautiful in this world through the lens of a camera.
I think one thing artists can do to help refugees is to help them find a voice. Many of these people come from cultures that are far more reserved than our own in regards to expression. They have stories to share that we need to hear.
ZOË: The Lark has a history of striving to champion under- and misrepresented voices. How do you see the work of The Lark and the IRC as related or overlapping?
LORI: The voices of refugees are a resource for understanding what is happening in our world today. I think the theater, and particularly the work of The Lark, can help associate names, context, and personal histories with the countless faces we see on the news. Communities such as the one The Lark has built can play a great role in helping to improve public awareness. The theater, and the arts in general, provide a natural way to humanize these stories.
ZOË: Have you seen examples of artists using theater in this way? Are there things we could be doing more of?
LORI: When attending the Arab Voices: here/there/then/now festival with The Lark I saw a reading of Oh My Sweet Land by Amir Nizar Zuabi. Its portrayal of refugees was non-political and beautifully written. Ruined by Lynn Nottage is another wonderful example of theater telling the refugee story with humanity and dignity.
ZOË: What are some misconceptions you think people have about refugees? How might theater be used to challenge them?
LORI: That being a refugee is a temporary situation. Many refugees end up in camps for decades and are never able return to their home countries. Millions of refugees struggle to survive in the shadows. Theater has the unique opportunity to illuminate the plight of refugees.
I think the general public has a tendency to give their interest to causes they think directly have an impact on them. It is a very natural thing for someone to want to advocate for something they are personally tied to, and for many people helping refugees is not one of those things. When I first started with the IRC I was assigned a family from Burundi and eventually their extended family. I have never had a closer or more rewarding friendship than the one I have with them. My son started volunteering for the IRC when he was eight and considers his time with refugees to be the most important thing that has ever happened to him. I think the theater could help change public perception by simply showing the truth of what these people go through both when they flee their country of origin and when they try to rebuild their lives here. It can also eliminate fear and suspicion by showing that these people are not the “other,” but individuals and families that we’d all be proud to have as our neighbors.