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Immigrant stories

Last modified: 4/19/2012 12:00:00 AM
Imagine leaving everything behind - friends, family, language, job, culture, in many cases possessions - to start a new life in America. What's left? The chance to dream again.

The immigrant and refugee experience is the topic of Dreaming Again, a new play commissioned by the New Hampshire Humanities Council. Written by Genevieve Aichele, artistic director of the New Hampshire Theater Project, the play is the culminating project in the council's three-year initiative Fences and Neighbors: New Hampshire's Immigration Stories.

Aichele weaves the voices of immigrants and refugees who settled in New Hampshire over the past 100 years into a moving performance that includes music from the countries represented in the play.

'All the music is traditional, and almost all of it has the theme of wandering or being a stranger in a strange land or about leaving your home,' Aichele said. 'It was arranged for the play by Agnes Charlesworth.'

Dreaming Again premiered in Portsmouth last weekend to sold-out audiences, moved on to Laconia and Manchester with the touring cast, and will continue with performances in five more communities across the state.

After each performance, there will be a question-and-answer session with the actors, some of whom are immigrants themselves, or a panel discussion with some of the immigrants who were interviewed, as well as experts in the immigration field and in the humanities.

The material for the play comes from both historical records and interviews with present-day immigrants and refugees.

Most of those interviews came from two sources, Aichele said. Sara Withers and the UNH Center for Humanities talked to many refugees for a documentary called Uprooted. Also, Fran Kelly of Southern New Hampshire University interviewed people who had been professionals in their own countries to learn about the difficulties they encountered.

'They had pages and pages of interviews, and I was given all of that material,' Aichele said.

'I did a few interviews myself,' Aichele said. 'I talked to folks that I have known who have lived here for awhile and were more assimilated, partly

because I was looking for different perspectives.'

For historical material, Aichele used Amoskeag: Life and Work in an American Factory-City, a book of interviews with immigrants who had lived in Manchester.

Aichele said that she was interested in the subject because she has relatives who are immigrants and has friends and relatives around the world.

'A lot of the stories from the interviews were familiar to me because I'd heard them,' she said.

Aichele said that refugees and immigrants have different experiences because immigrants choose to come here, perhaps for economic reasons, to join family, or to follow a husband or wife. Refugees, on the other hand, have no choice. They are uprooted from their homeland and placed here.

There is also a difference between immigrants today and those who came a hundred years ago, she said. When immigrants were coming here in the late 1800s or early 1900s, they arrived in large groups, so they had an instant community. Many migrants today don't have that.

'One of the women in the play is from Venezuela, and she said that she only knows three other Venezuelans in New Hampshire,' Aichele said. 'There's less of a community, so they really have to work harder at being assimilated in the greater community.

'But, I think, on the other side, there's greater knowledge of the world through the internet and acceptance of us as a global culture, particularly among young people. So I think that in that sense, sometimes it's a little easier today.'

Even though experiences differed, there were many common threads, she said.

Newcomers feel disoriented. They mourn the loss of their traditions and language. They don't feel quite American, but after they've lived here for some time and return to their home country, they don't quite fit there either. Without friends and family, they are lonely. However, there is great joy in new opportunities.

The play has had a strong effect not only on audiences but also on the performers and playwright. Two of the actors are immigrants themselves, and two are married to immigrants.

'The first time we read it, they were very moved - that was very gratifying for me,' Aichele said.

'One thing surprised me,' she said. 'So many people said that in their culture, family is all-important, but being in America taught them that you can treat strangers as family. I heard that over and over again.

'The story that was most heart-wrenching for me was the couple from Bosnia. They were upper middle class, they were both teachers - and in one day their entire life was taken away from them. They lost everything. Sometimes it's hard for us to identify with people who have lived in war-torn countries for their whole lives - but to have what we have and to think that tomorrow you could have absolutely nothing - your identity is gone, your family is gone, your car is gone, your job is gone - and you are told to leave. It made me more grateful for everything that I have, that it's precious, and we could lose it at any moment.'

Anne Coughlin, marketing director for the humanities council, described the purpose of the Fences and Neighbors initiative, which also sponsored the documentary produced at UNH in 2011. Uprooted: Heartache and Hope in New Hampshire featured refugees who told their stories about war, persecution, refugee camps and starting anew in New Hampshire.

'We hoped it would get people thinking and talking about the whole concept of immigration and looking at it with new eyes - what it means to be a newcomer, what it means to let people into your community,' Coughlin said. 'So many of the conversations about immigration are political and oppositional. People get entrenched in their views. What the humanities, through literature and theater, can bring to bear is the opportunity to take the long view, to see the big picture, to think about it in terms of history.'

Coughlin also reminds people to look at their own histories.

'Many people who consider themselves native to New Hampshire need to remember that their grandparents were arriving here to work in the mills. You might be several generations removed, but someone in your family was a newcomer here,' she said.

The play has apparently achieved its mission.

'We've heard lots of great things about people being very grateful for the opportunity to talk about immigration in this way, separate from the politics and the vitriol,' Coughlin said. 'It's a chance to really think about it as, in many ways, a uniquely American phenomenon, this melting pot and what it means to all of us. We've had a wonderful response.'

Aichele said that New Hampshire Theater Project's mission is to create theater that is transformative, both for participants and audience.

'This particular project really fits our mission. It's been a wonderful experience doing that,' she said.

While tomorrow's performance in Concord is full, there are still several opportunities to see it in other venues. Except for the Keene performance, tickets are free, although donations are appreciated.

'There is a registration page for each performance on our website, nhhc.org. Registration is not required but we don't want people to drive there and not be able to get in,' Coughlin said. 'The remaining venues are bigger, so I don't think they'll be completely full.'


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