Inside Look Into ‘REFUGE’

When a majority of the South Florida community is made up of Latine people, you would think that more stories being presented would reflect that – but unfortunately the opposite tends to be the reality. 

On its final leg of a Rolling World Premiere, REFUGE brings to the South Florida stage a story and language that hasn’t been seen too often within the local theatre circles – a story about immigration told as authentically as possible, never relenting in its use of Spanish. This might seem like a silly thing to highlight, but the truth is that when most theaters see a script like this, with such command of two languages, demanding that Spanish be spoken without subtitles – they tend to run in the opposite direction… Thankfully Matt Stabile and the team at Theatre Lab embraced it with open arms. 

Co-created by Satya Jnani Chávez and Andrew Rosendorf, REFUGE tells the story of one young Honduran girls journey as she crosses the US border into the inhospitable, barren land of Texas through original music, artistic puppetry and magical realism. The journey of this world as it exists now started in 2018 when Chávez was brought on, writing all the music and lyrics. Chávez, a Chicago based Mexican-American Queer gender-fluid artist started out as a singer, never thinking these other aspects of actor, composer, would come into play on their artistic journey, until they came across the earliest incarnation of this show. Something they might not have been able to do without the guidance from a very early ager of their father, a man they refer to as “a master of English and Spanish, a poet without any formal training” who they co-wrote the theme with.

“I’ve dedicated a lot of my life and career to stories that uplift my community, so when I heard this story – which was basically my father’s story? It was a no brainer, I had to be a part of it.”

After that, Chávez has been traveling with the show since 2019, around the time that artistic director Matt Stabile first came into contact with the script, and the one thing that truly connected with him was, as he put it, the authenticity. He recognized how relevant this story is to a vast majority of the population, and knew it was a story that needed to be told, which led to REFUGE being a part of Theatre Labs New Play Fest 2020, with a hopeful future down the line.

“I was fortunate enough to grow up not being the majority, but in fact being the minority and never seeing this kinda work within the community then, or now – so it’s an honor to bring this back.”

 With that in mind, a play like this, about such a topical problem can easily become “preachy”. Stabile knew this going into it, that it all comes down to the theatricality of it. What can be done to tell this story that will not only help us understand the truth behind it, but keep audiences engaged from start to finish? As Theatre Lab is a home for new work, it also means they must continue to find new ways to tell those stories, and this production is a big step into unknown territory for them in the best of ways. This play is filled with puppets, bilingual music that guides us along, magical realism, and is told completely in the round, truly inviting the audience to be a part of the story.

Despite this bilingual odyssey being one that welcomes people from all walks of life, some might see the bilingual aspect as a problem if they can’t understand half the story being told. This isn’t something that has escaped  Stabile and in fact it isn’t something that worries him all too much. He is confident that the way they are going about it will reach all who come to experience REFUGE –

“Everyone will get the story, maybe just not at the same time.”

Along with the connection to the community, the cast of this piece(made up of almost entirely POC)  all feel it is a vital story that touches their lives in a variety of ways, and thankfully I was given the chance to hear it from them; Krystal Millie Valdes(MUSICIO), a Cuban-American Miami native, functions as the plays musical narrator, holding our hand from beginning to end with music , being the North Star, pointing the way home.  – “I love that I get to honor my family, their story, and for the first time to be a part of a show that they can fully understand.”

Melinette Pallares(MARTINA), South Texas/NYC based actress, takes on what can stereotypically be seen as the “bad guy”, as a woman a part of the Border Patrol. But despite the job, she has a good heart, and what this play does is show us both sides of the fence. 

“What I have to say is pretty simple but… the reverence and honor to those that came before us in order to move forward? I feel honored honoring it.”

Nathalie Andrade(GIRL), a first generation Peruvian-American South Florida raised actress, goes on an odyssey as a 17 year old migrant to find her mother in this music infused tale step-by-step. 

“There are people currently on this journey, right now, and some won’t make it this far one way or another. And using my privilege as an artist to tell this kind of story is an honor. I love using all the parts of who I am as a person and artist, to have the opportunity to bring humanity into the conversation.”

Kevin Cruz(WOLF/HAL), a Puerto Rican New World BFA alum, takes part as opposite predators, holding the key to some very important elements within this all encompassing journey. 

“Many Latin Americans can relate to this idea of escape, so naturally I feel a responsibility to tell this story.”

Gaby Tortoledo(STEPH), a Venezuelan stage and screen actor based in South Florida, having herself been a political refuge from 2014-2019 feels deeply connected to this, and now taking on the role of an old ranch dog, finds a new way to explore this struggle. As STEPH, she is a loyal character mourning an incredible loss, that can only push her further down her path. 

“This is a South Florida show. So many of us within the community have come from a displaced background one way or another. It’s a great piece for both sides to see the other, both sides of the fence. And the great but maybe sad thing is, this is the first time I get to speak Spanish on stage, something that I wasn’t sure I would get a chance to do and it feels great finding my voice in Spanish within the theatre.”

Michael Gioia(RANCHER), a born and raised Miami native, might be the only Anglo actor within the cast, but having grown up in and around the community and culture makes this a story he knew he wanted to be a part of. After opening and teaching at an acting school for 25 years, he retired from teaching 6 years ago, and then dived back into acting. Within this play he takes on the role of a compassionate, intelligent, and lost character who must discover what each person needs in order to survive and prosper in this world. 

“This feels like an immediate story. The kind I would hear growing up, old family stories. Working through this show has made me feel enlightened, touched by the story and cast.”

At the core of REFUGE of all the actors, the creative team behind the scenes, is the humanity. At the end of the day, we are all human, and all we want is to be seen, heard, and understood. According to Stabile, this is a play about “helping”, helping one another when we need it, to make it through each obstacle we face.

With Chávez taking on the role of director, they recognize that this play has been a door opener for them, “carving out a path in an industry I didn’t know about”, and has been a very loving, and great learning experience for them. The whole reason for them and Theatre Lab to create a space for REFUGE is because of the window into empathy that it builds. Empathy for those that are never seen, and that never know what that feels like when all they want is to feel like they belong. 

Before my conversation with this cast and crew came to an end, I had one last question;

“What question are you asking with this play?”

The answer they gave is something that still bounces around my head because not only does it fit with this story, but it applies to so much of the human experience…

“What would you do if you were faced with a real person on your doorstep?”

With REFUGE opening this week, and running through April 23rd, don’t miss your chance to see it. This is a story for anyone and everyone. With April 6th & 7th preview performances offering “pay what you choose” tickets.

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