The capture of immigrant experience: IRIS, Collective Consciousness Theatre explores Stories of a New America

By Hank Hoffman

Collective Consciousness Theatre Executive Director Dexter Singleton meets with Kiza Emmanuel, a client of Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services. Image coutesy of IRIS


For those of us who are comfortable and living in the United States, we might lose our awareness of the struggles of the refugees who come to our country. They come from faraway lands, and heartbreak, loneliness, fear, success, and joy are all part of their experiential package. And yet, through remarkable strength and fortitude, these people come here to resettle and offer perhaps the same types of gifts that our nation and the world have received from other refugees such as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and Henry Kissinger.

Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS) and the Collective Consciousness Theatre (CCT) have joined together to bring the residents of Connecticut an extraordinary production, which will shine a theatrical light on the struggle and success of the refugee in America. Stories of a New America will present true stories of the refugee experience that will be performed through multicultural, multilingual monologues and vignettes. The opening for Stories of a New America will be held on June 22, 2011 at the Yale University Campus, Henry R. Luce Hall, 34 Hillhouse Ave., New Haven. Performances will be given at 6pm and 8pm in celebration of World Refugee Day 2011.

According to IRIS, “Refugees are men, women, and children who have fled their country of origin due to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Refugees who successfully complete a rigorous screening process — conducted by the U.S. Departments of State and Homeland Security — are granted legal ‘refugee status’ and invited to resettle in this country. Our government’s current policy is to admit approximately 70,000 refugees annually. IRIS — New Haven County’s only refugee resettlement agency — welcomes 125-175 of these each year.”

The collaboration between IRIS and CCT is a compilation of several months of interviews and workshops that piece together the stories of IRIS’ clients, many of whom come from Iraq, Cuba, Afghanistan, Iran, Somalia, and the Congo. Professional actors from CCT, along with IRIS clientele, will perform and tell the stories of a group of people who are truly diverse. Throughout the production, the group will work together and find new ways to communicate in order to create theater and present it to the public.

Dexter Singleton, executive director of CCT, hopes that the play will break out of New Haven and endeavors to take the show on the road to connect with other refugee resettlement organizations, schools, and communities. Conducting over 70 performances and reaching out to more than 10,000 people a year, CCT works to bring awareness to a variety of socially significant topics. CCT hopes to make Stories of a New America part of its continuing repertoire.

“The whole project has really given me insight that I never had before,” explains Singleton. “People who were once teachers, doctors, artists, and professionals in their own country can become displaced as newcomers to our country and as a result are forced to live a life of poverty.”

CCT and IRIS not only shine light on this issue, but also provide ways for these newcomers to find art, beauty, and paid work here in America. One performance member, an IRIS client, will lend his talent to the production as a professional actor who comes to us from the Iraq National Theater. He will perform in Arabic and may contribute his own written monologue. Working on this project not only mines the art and beauty within, but also provides participating refugees with paid work.

“That’s what this project does. It humanizes the situation,” says Chris George, executive director of IRIS. “And the best way to improve people’s understanding is through art.”

In addition to these already lofty goals, the two groups also wish to engage and connect with the public to create new communities and to help older communities better embrace their roots and those of their neighbors.

“I think one of the most important roles of theater is to create community,” says CCT writer Aaron Jafferis.

Both organizations wish to encourage the public to take steps to welcome these refugees and foster higher notions of community. Whether by seeing the opening performance of Stories of a New America or simply reaching out to a neighbor, each hand extended to these refugees by the public can make a world of difference in everyone’s life.

“Our mission is to raise the profile of the refugee and raise awareness of their struggle and bravery . . . people need to know that hospitality is one of our country’s finest traditions. We seek to be a welcoming, international, global-minded country, and if you look to these people’s stories it will help our communities take a more calm and compassionate approach to the situation,” says George.

Lucile Bruce, development director at IRIS, goes on to say, “I think something that is really important is the understanding that if you encounter an immigrant out there, that person might be a refugee or they might not, but every person has a story and many of these stories are very, very powerful. All people are a treasure trove of experiences.”

And indeed they are.

Collective Consciousness Theatre, based in New Haven, is a multicultural professional theater company that uses community-based theater as a tool for social change. IRIS, also based in New Haven, resettles approximately 200 refugees each year.

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One comment

  1. G’Day! Theartspaper,
    Thanks you for your post, A good piece of artwork captures the essence of the subject matter as seen through the eye of the artist. A great piece of artwork exposes the inner-workings of the artist and connects to the viewer on a human level.

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