Above: Carolina Sierra plays a silent refugee girl in The Moving Company's "Refugia."
Is the world premiere of “Refugia,” currently on stage at the Guthrie, a poetic play inspired by the Syrian refugee crisis? Or is the Moving Company’s production a shallow, insensitive and even fat-shaming show dominated by white male actors?
The Guthrie Theater hosted a one-hour community conversation on Wednesday to discuss the matter, led by the theater's director of community engagement, Carra Martinez.
The eight-person panel included blogger Laura vanZandt, whose online review was possibly the first to give voice to concerns about the show’s racial politics. “I identify as a female person of color with an immigrant mother,” wrote vanZandt, “and it saddens me to not have found any reason to connect to this show.”
Her review concluded that the play is “short-sighted, white-centric and indulgent.” (Theatergoers have left similar critiques on the Guthrie's Facebook page.)
Rounding out the panel were Guthrie Artistic Director Joseph Haj, the Moving Company's co-artistic directors Dominique Serrand and Steven Epp, theater artist Kory LaQuess Pullam (who posted his own critique of the production Tuesday), plus Moving Company artistic associates Nathan Keepers and Christina Baldwin.
The conversation was awkward and sometimes tense. VanZandt was low-key, speaking only briefly to lament how the play starts and ends with a white male character. "It really hit me that there was one white man with the dominant voice," she said.
Pullam proved the show's boldest critic. He took issue with the show's "punching down" humor -- jokes about a plump woman being mistaken for pregnant, jokes about a Latino border agent who doesn't speak Spanish, jokes about a refugee girl who doesn't speak whatsoever.
"In comedy, why are we crapping on the people who are already in this position?" asked Pullam, a co-founder of the comedy troupe Blackout Improv who at the same time sugared much of his critique with gushing praise for the Moving Company (“I love these artists, I respect these artists,” he said more than once).
“Comedy is a weapon,” said Serrand in response to Pullam's critiques. "Everything in the show was profoundly intentional."
Haj spoke just once, basically to voice full support for the Moving Company and its show, which the Guthrie helped develop through a residency program. Martinez spoke at length to set rules for respectful dialogue. She later jumped in to defend the silent refugee character as the "truest" thing in the whole play.
Baldwin defended her use of body padding, something she hoped would elevate her character's voice over her looks. "I wanted to be voluptuous, I wanted to have a pregnancy belly," she said.
One of the evening’s strangest moments came when Epp mentioned all the immigrants who’ve approached him post-show to say the Moving Company got everything “exactly right.”
In what was possibly a verbal fumble, he added that these opinions "matter most" to him.
“I heard what you said was that the opinions that mattered most were positive,” said Katherine Pardue, an audience member who also happens to be the Jungle Theater's artistic associate.
“That’s not what he said,” interrupted Serrand.
“Excuse me, I’m still talking,” said Pardue, who went on to ask how the artists regard less approving responses.
In the end, the 60-minute event proved too brief for such a difficult conversation.
"Refugia" ends Sunday, $15-$67, 612-377-2224, guthrietheater.org.