The Rosetown Playhouse community theater group is staging a play at the Minnesota Fringe Festival that tells about its American-born and Asian refugee teen actors.
Writing "Twist of Fate," playwright and director Tyler Olsen imagined two groups of teenagers stranded on a tropical island as a result of a cyclone and tornado.
The final product from the Rosetown Playhouse, a community theater group in Roseville, is about navigating cultural and personal differences to find common ground.
It brings together 25 teenagers. Some were born in America. Others are political refugees from Myanmar and Thailand who belong to an ethnic group known as the Karen (pronounced Ka-REN).
Rosetown is preparing "Twist of Fate" for its run at the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis. The play begins Thursday and goes through Aug. 12 as one of 165 shows in the Minnesota Fringe Festival.
To pull it off, the theater group partnered with the Roseville parks system, which provided rehearsal space at Villa Park, where the group also performed last week.
Rosetown connected with refugees through the Karen Organization of Minnesota (KOM), a St. Paul-based nonprofit that provides assistance to local Karen. The Karen "have long been subject to persecution and ethnic cleansing by the Burmese government," according to KOM information that refers to Myanmar by its previous name, Burma.
Although Olsen had a basic framework for the play from the outset, the idea was to make "Twist of Fate" a collaborative effort with the actors. This was a unique challenge considering that some of the Karen people have been in the country for less than a year, and speak little English, he said.
It helped to have dance instructors who doubled as translators, he said.
Tapestry in words, action
As a part of the creative process, Olsen questioned the teenagers about everything from their favorite foods to sad and happy memories. He wove many of their comments and individual quirks into the script, alternating lines in English and Karen.
Everything from one actor's love of yoga to another's incessant singing ended up in the play.
Behind the scenes, the cast members have grown closer, playing in the rain and sharing food. This bonding is reflected onstage.
"It's been great seeing kids open up on both sides," Olsen said. "It gives a taste of what life is like for people."
The show blends the serious and the comic, and plenty of movement and song, including a traditional Karen dance.
At times, the actors use their arms and legs to portray turbulent waves. They make jungle noises. Often, they communicate with each other and with the audience with universal gestures and expressions.
Htee Saw, 16, who came to St. Paul from Thailand nearly a year ago, sings a solo in Karen about her people's struggle, which strikes a personal chord. As a 3-year-old, she ran into the jungle to hide from soldiers who killed some of her family members. She went without food for a week.
For the love - not! - of pigs
The sad song speaks to the resilience of the Karen. "If we have a problem, we never give up," she said.
On a lighter note, something else she spoke of during rehearsal one day -- the fact that she hated her family's pig back in Thailand -- turned up in a whimsical way.
The pig -- she has vivid memories of the animal's stench -- is portrayed onstage crossing the ocean, symbolizing the Karen people's journey. At one point the pig plants a kiss on Saw's cheek. "In the show I say, 'I hate that pig!'" she beamed.
Laughter lives on
That kind of candor has made the show meaningful to Anna Roemer, 16, of Shoreview.
Even though they have been through so much, the Karen can "tell these stories and still laugh and be overjoyed with something as simple as finding a berry tree in the park," she said.
"This experience has made me look at the way I live life differently," Roemer said, "and at the things I take for granted."
Anna Pratt is a Twin Cities freelance writer.