nytheatre.com review by David Ledoux
June 15, 2007
Refugee Nation opens with the image of an actor slowly walking across the stage with a ball of tin foil in his outstretched hands, followed shortly by an actress in the same fashion. They both proceed to circle a small temple center stage and throw the foil at the temple as if they were bombs. The bombs remain on stage for the duration of the piece as a constant reminder of the violence that provoked all of the subsequent stories of the evening.
What follows is a series of vignettes in which actor/collaborators Leilani Chan and Ova Saopeng act out a series of scenes dealing with the displacement, lack of national identity and generational divide among Laotian refugees and immigrants as a result of the American-led secret war in Laos. Chan and Saopeng's acting of the various characters is wonderful. They bring a specificity and truthfulness to each person they portray. Refugee Nation, which is a TeAda production, is also being developed in collaboration with Legacies of War, an organization that attempts to "raise awareness about the history of the Vietnam-era bombing in Laos, to provide space for healing the wounds of war and create greater hope for a future of peace."
While I like the idea of the opening image, I don't think it works. We know it is tinfoil in their hands and it becomes even more obvious when we hear the dull ruffling thud of the foil falling to the stage. It is hard to take an image seriously that is obviously attempting to communicate the horror of the bombings of Laos with actors pretending to be planes throwing foil around the stage.
I did appreciate the humor they are able to bring to the material. A pair of morning talk show hosts teaching the audience a Laotian greeting; a man railing at how difficult it is to find a Laotian restaurant in the city; and a very confused old man stopping the action of a conversation to ask the audience directly, "Who is this woman? Where did she come from?"—all of these are effective and engaging moments that reveal a great charm in this play with a dark underbelly.
This dark underbelly is never fully revealed however. We do not ever see the magnitude of the event that the play is about. I'm not talking about staging gruesome images of war or having actors screaming and sobbing in horror, but I am talking about finding moments that reveal how transformative war was in their lives. I never felt like I was seeing characters who were deaply affected by their past.
Now this is a tricky point because I suspect this was a conscious choice, and even though I didn't necessarily "get it" I am unfortunately not the target audience for this piece. Actually I feel a little unqualified in reviewing it. There were many Laotians in the audience the night I saw it, and there were a great many of them that seemed truly moved and impacted by it. I think this is the important point. Theatre has the ability to reach specific communities and deal with issues that affect those communities in a room where artist and spectator are together. I was struck by the beauty of this with Refugee Nation.
This may not be a piece that will be done regionally or off-Broadway for years to come, but who cares. It doesn't want to be that. It is doing something much more important. Refugee Nation has the potential to go out and truly affect Laotians and help to restore a sense of identity and pride that was partially destroyed by the cluster bombs of America. I wish them the best of luck and truly admire their passion and purposefulness in developing Refugee Nation.