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Group Efforts: the real-life drama of Central American refugees

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"It's funny, isn't it, how people think of politics as being outside of life?" says Deborah Wise, codirector of Boston's Underground Railway Theater. "Within our company, politics is part of life; and we believe that theater, like all other art forms, can be about everything life is."

Politics, which Wise defines as "the ways in which people try to structure their social lives," forms the backbone of the Underground Railway's new touring production, Sanctuary: The Spirit of Harriet Tubman. Through flashbacks to scenes from the 1850s, the play puts the sagas of present-day Central American refugees, illegally harbored, in the context of the Underground Railroad, which provided safe passage to the north for hundreds of black slaves seeking freedom.

"We started doing research on Harriet Tubman," Wise continues, "and found that she was a domestic in between her trips down south, in order to raise money to continue her operations. We were struck by the incredible coincidence that today there are lots of Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees working in our kitchens. Our play asks, 'Who are these people whose faces are incredibly familiar but whose stories are completely unknown to us?'"

Work on the play began several years ago when Wes Sanders, Wise's codirector, and Boston poet Kate Rushin went on a "sanctuary caravan" across the country, interviewing refugees in various sanctuary communities. Although you might expect those seeking sanctuary to be beaten down, Wise says that "it's an incredibly vital community of determined people."

Here in Chicago, one of the most active sanctuary organizations is the Northside Sanctuary Consortium, an ecumenical coalition of nine congregations on Chicago's north side. (The consortium is sponsoring the Underground Railway's Chicago performance.) "The idea of sanctuary is not necessarily to help all of the 50,000 illegal Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees in Chicago personally," explains the consortium's Denise Griebler. Instead her organization seeks to bolster public awareness and lobby for change: "It provides a safe platform from which these refugees can tell their stories. It's important that this huge, voiceless community not be silenced."

Deborah Wise is quick to agree. "There's nothing like true stories, and this play has found its inspiration in stories of the human spirit and its indomitable nature. It doesn't attempt to be rhetorical. All it attempts to do is tell the stories of people whom we may otherwise take for granted."

Griebler tells the story of one refugee here in Chicago, Andrea, a Guatemalan being harbored by the consortium. Her story could well be part of Sanctuary: Andrea's husband, Gorge, worked in Guatemala with that country's poor and Indians. He tried to teach them some of their basic legal rights, since the Guatemalan military has a history of throwing such people off their land. One night in January 1984, 30 heavily armed men from the Guatemalan military surrounded Andrea's home and then dragged her husband out. She has neither seen nor heard from him since.

"Basically any individual who works on behalf of the poor or the Indians is targeted," explains Griebler. "The governments of El Salvador and Guatemala accuse them of being communists, which is tantamount to a death threat."

Because of the large number of Guatemalans who have similarly disappeared--Griebler estimates the number at 40,000--the government has regular news broadcasts announcing that bodies have been found at such-and-such location, and that all citizens with missing family members should report there, possibly to identify the remains. Andrea, who spent a year going to such grisly convocations, soon realized that she was encountering the same people over and over. So she helped to organize them into a human rights group, the only one currently recognized by the government and given some license, which demanded the immediate return of their loved ones. Because of her involvement with this group, she was put under government surveillance. When she began to receive death threats, she took her children and fled to America. "There is a litany of stories just like Andrea's," comments Griebler.

However sympathetic one may be to such stories, harboring these refugees is nevertheless illegal. Sanctuary workers, however, see the illegality of their actions as historically justified.

"We look back and we can call Harriet Tubman a heroine," says Griebler. "With Central American refugees, however, there exists an enormous debate as to whether sanctuary stands on the "right' side of the issue. We believe that history is on our side."

In theatricalizing refugees' stories, the Underground Railway Theater avoids stark, documentary-style realism. The group, long known for its elaborate pageant/spectacles, employs in Sanctuary such devices as giant puppets, shadow puppetry, mime, and live music. "The play is of course about real people," explains Wise. "In spite of that fact, their stories are epic in scope. They are about masses of people making long journeys. We didn't want to limit our palette to actors, since actors are only one part of what theater can be about."

The Underground Railway has often treated controversial social issues needing immediate attention. The Anything-Can-Happen Road Show dealt with the nuclear arms race, and Mothers and Others with the issues of abortion, motherhood, and sexuality.

"We consider it our mission to create theater that engages an audience in unusual ways," Wise says.

"I hope that [the play] will make people look with more curiosity and more compassion at those who shadow our lives," she goes on to explain. "Face it, the future of this country is not with the white middle class. We're increasingly a country of immigrants, and it behooves all of us to take their lives into ours."

Sanctuary: The Spirit of Harriet Tubman will be presented on Friday and Saturday, October 30 and 31, at the Athenaeum Theater, 2936 N. Southport. Performances are at 8:30, admission is $10, and the proceeds will benefit the Northside Sanctuary Consortium. Ticket information at 436-5046.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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