Songs of Our Southern Border in ‘Refuge’

Written By: Mindy Leaf

Numbers are dry, unemotional. Sometimes the higher the numbers of victims of war, hunger, atrocities, the harder it is to relate. Humans appear to require one-on-one connections to enter another person’s world and actually care about their fate. To facilitate such empathy through the generations, we’ve developed art, music, and perhaps – most of all – live theater. 

The numbers of migrants from South America seeking refuge across our southern border have been growing so rapidly that I can’t even put down a number … as it will have been superseded by the time you read this. (Last count for fiscal year 2022 was 2.76 million.)  But in all that time, we still haven’t come up with a humane solution of how to help the desperate families, individuals and children who lose their lives wandering amidst the harsh desert wastelands of Texas, bereft of food and water, subjected to endless days of 100-plus-degree heat, freezing nights, deadly snakes and other predators, including malignant immigration officers. 

And then there are the occasional ranchers with a kind heart who try to help. The story of one such rancher and the legacy of his deceased activist daughter, a very pregnant Mexican-American border patrol agent and her latest “prey” (a teenage girl who masquerades as a boy), along with the rancher’s faithful dog, a lone wolf and poisonous snake encompass the human and puppet characters that make us care. Especially as the power of their individual stories are introduced and sung-through with music – the universal language that touches our very soul. 

From left to right: Gaby Tortoledo & Melinette Pallares. MORGAN SOPHIA PHOTOGRAPHY.

FAU Theatre Lab’s presentation of REFUGE, co-created by Satya Jnani Chavez and Andrew Rosendorf (with translations by Mari Meza-Burgos) represents the final stop of this Rolling World Premiere that was originally commissioned by Curious Theatre Company of Denver, CO, produced there, then staged by Unicorn Theatre, MO. The playwrights were able to observe audience reactions and add tweaks and, as Chavez also served as director/music director for our show in Boca, we are likely seeing the latest, best version. Personally, I wouldn’t change a thing to this 90-minute (no intermission), fully immersive, gritty yet mystical experience (thanks to scenic design by Alyiece Morreto-Watkins and Timothy S. Dickey) that’s ideal for the Lab’s intimate, stadium-style seated venue which even includes a few chairs onstage. REFUGE is a unique original – both in topic and presentation – that keeps audiences enthralled, surprised, often anxious but always engaged. 

We are introduced to our journey, in Spanish and English, by a person simply listed in the program as “Musica” – guitar-playing Krystal Millie Valdes. In addition to providing background music and quick-timed beats throughout, Valdes utilizes classical guitar fingering and even Mariachi sounds; she is also the featured singer in many of the play’s original songs. Musica both narrates the story and serves as its conscience by embodying the spirit of Rancher Frank’s over-a-decade-now departed daughter Sarah, with beautiful vocals in perfect Spanish and English, and facial expressions (ranging from stoic to anguish) to match. It’s hard to believe that this young Cuban-American actor, musician and singer/songwriter learned to play classical guitar just for this part as she totally knocks it out of the park. 

The pivotal introductory scene focuses on a young boy pulling the shoes off a dead body (a stuffed sack figure) as he hobbles about the desert in bloodied socks, finally arriving at the Rancher’s animal trough for water. Hoodie-clad Nathalie Andrade who plays “Girl” makes for a highly believable, desperate boy who passes out and is almost taken for dead, but saved by the rancher who feels that’s what his caring daughter would have wanted. Though the signs are fading now, it’s she who’d placed Big Dipper stickers throughout the area to help wretched and parched refugees find their way to their 46,000-acre ranch for water and safety. Girl spouts ongoing streams of Spanish (she’s always angry and upset and desperate to be reunited with her mother who we assume is somewhere in the States by her fierce protection of a slip of paper with a phone number). But she won’t reveal her name except to say she’s not from Mexico but rather from Honduras. 

The young, solely-Spanish-speaking teen likely has the most spoken lines in the play and I admit to envying Spanish speakers in the audience, especially when she emoted so forcefully. Though this is a play for either English-speakers or Spanish-speakers or, maybe especially, for both (a very large contingent in our area). And everyone can get what’s going on whatever their preferred language. In fact, after the show, when I asked Theatre Lab’s producing artistic director Matt Stabile if I’d missed much, his reply was that by not being fluent in Spanish I probably got more of the playwrights’ intended experience – which is why they refused to include subtitles. I was able to feel the discomfort of not understanding what’s being spoken around me that immigrants feel all the time, and I had to work harder to figure things out from other clues. Though if you’re concerned, I will add that major points are also spoken in English and you do eventually arrive at the correct conclusions, just sometimes a bit later on.

From left to right: Gaby Tortoledo, Kevin Cruz, Nathalie Andrade, Melinette Pallares. MORGAN SOPHIA PHOTOGRAPHY.

Local veteran actor, Michael Gioia – who was perfectly cast as the crusty American Rancher – often repeated the Girl’s words in English and addressed her both in English and stilted Spanish (that I could understand) though he purposely increased both his Spanish communication and bettered his accent as he drew emotionally closer to her. 

The fictional border town of aptly named Desolation, Texas, is a tough area that inspires the need to project a tough, self-sufficient exterior, especially for female officers. American born, Mexican-American US Border Patrol agent Martina (very believably portrayed by Melinette Pallares) looks about-to-pop pregnant but insists on keeping up with her job of searching for unauthorized immigrants, especially tracking one reported “boy.” Coming upon the shoeless body (I’m thinking a person took these woman’s shoes) calls in her find with: “I found a bundle and got two bodies, over.” She is generally able to separate her feelings from the job (which is one of few that are available to her in this part of the country) but does visibly crack upon discovering the body of a partially wolf-devoured mother (whose backpack contains newborn diapers) still shielding her dead baby with her body, even in death. The human tragedies that she, and now we, confront make up her daily reality. This time, we can’t avert our eyes; keep tissues handy. 

I don’t know if they were intentionally added for a bit of comedy relief, but the stick puppet animal characters (great puppet design by John Shamburger) and their highly emotive, singing human handlers, do just that. They are also an integral part of the story. The Rancher’s pet dog Steph, played so touchingly by widely acclaimed actor Gaby Tortoledo, is first seen whimpering as she leads Frank to the fallen over saguaro cactus that was planted years back in memory of his daughter, but can’t be raised. Yet one more illustration of this harsh, unforgiving land. Steph, with her sweet, big doggie eyes and wagging tail is loved by all, including a starving lone wolf who’d been left behind by his pack for being too puny. 

Kevin Cruz has both a lovely singing and howling voice as the Wolf. You also hear him as the voice of Hal, the evil, Journey theme-song playing Border Station commander Martina reports to. If ten reports of abuse of detainees haven’t managed to get him ousted, one more will likely not do the trick.

But Rancher Frank will help the Girl get safely across government checkpoints so she can, hopefully, be reunited with her mom while Border Patrol agent Martina – who’s finally taken off to give birth – looks the other way.

From left to right: Melinette Pallares, Gaby Tortoledo, Michael Gioia, Nathalie Andrade, Kevin Cruz. MORGAN SOPHIA PHOTOGRAPHY.

And we, the audience, are now confronted with piles of shoes left behind by the dead (for me, far too reminiscent of Holocaust victim shoe displays at Israel’s World Holocaust Remembrance Center, Yad Vashem). And we are left with a sharp, new, gut-wrenching understanding of, and compassion for, the hordes of desperate migrants seeking refuge across our borders.

REFUGE is playing through April 23 at Theatre Lab, the Professional Resident Company of Florida Atlantic University. For tickets go to or call 561-297-6124. The theater is located at Parliament Hall, FAU, 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton 33431. For more information and directions to free parking at Parking Garage 2, see

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