Thursday, April 3, 2003

Join the hunt: Chase away lions, wherever they be

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The future of Maine theater is here. The people in Lewiston still haven’t put their Somali neighbors’ experiences on stage, but the Children’s Theatre of Maine has. Lion Hunting on Munjoy Hill is the most important, relevant play on Maine stages this season, a brilliant show that all Mainers should see, the better to understand ourselves and our neighbors, both new and old.

Within the confines of a simple set combining a market, Congress Street, and the Portland Observatory, Portland playwright John Urquhart crystallizes the immigrant experience in Maine, sharply portraying harassment by local teens, police insensitivity and recalcitrance, proud and strong immigrants, overbearing social-service workers, lost dreams, and identity crisis. It is a world white Maine too rarely sees, and often prefers to ignore.

Urquhart based the script on interviews conducted with Portland’s immigrants and lays out their lives in strong, vibrant characters. The actors bring their own experiences to the roles, making them uniquely authentic and powerful, even beyond their clear talents. And the simplicities required by children’s theater do not preclude deep, layered meanings that are great for parent-child conversation.

There are warning bells clanging loudly here. In this play, Portland’s cops are shown as do-nothing buffoons, complete with red clown-noses, who have no desire or ability to help the most vulnerable Portlanders. Social service workers are exposed as dithering do-gooders who want to mold kids into a sad American " ideal. "

Immigrants’ own contradictions are also put on display, from the frustration of Long (Hue Edwards) with her mother’s refusal to label products in English to attract tourist buyers, to the false, but lucrative, American patriotism of Ivan, the Russian street vendor (Eli Doucette).

Small vignettes illuminate other aspects of immigrant life, showing the hardships of interracial puppy love and the sacrifices immigrants must make, leaving respected professions to become housecleaners. These are real: Ask the woman who runs the Vientiane Market what she used to do for work in Bangkok.

This play should open lines of dialogue throughout the city, and open eyes in every neighborhood in Maine. Even a benign lack of knowledge of other cultures can be painful for newcomers to bear. An innocent child’s question, " Where are you from? " turns into a geography lesson, complete with world map. And " What is that ‘S’ on your shirt? " becomes a confession of immigrant vulnerability, because, as the response instructs, " Everyone knows who Superman is. "

Not Asad, the Somali boy who arrived two weeks ago and is played powerfully by 11-year-old Somali-born Mohamed Abdirahman, cast just three weeks before the show opened. CTM Managing Director Stacy Begin said the challenge of finding actors who met the show’s ethnic requirements was not small.

It took weeks to find Mohamed’s family, and, even then, the two weeks of explaining and negotiating had to go through an interpreter. Cultural mores prevented his sister from performing by his side.

The whole casting process took a hurried three months for this play, as contrasted with the usual seasonal auditions casting three or four shows in one weekend. Even so, CMT couldn’t find a Cambodian girl, so they changed two characters to be Vietnamese. And they couldn’t find a Russian teenager, picking instead an Anglo teen, Doucette, with an excellent Russian accent. " I hope it will encourage other kids to (audition), " Begin said.

It should — a recent show’s audience included a smattering of ethnic backgrounds, though, as the play points out, even native-born Americans call themselves something else. Danny (Jared Mongeau) is Irish, but it is the immigrants who worry most about identity, and have dreams far removed from those of their US-born friends.

When violence strikes, the immigrants bond together to make it right, though still cowed by their newness in town. It takes Asad, who wants to help but knows he can’t take on bully white teens alone, to come up with the idea. " Superman only helps white people. We need another superhero on Munjoy Hill, " Asad says. He remembers a time, before Somalia was torn apart by war, when villagers would have to protect themselves against lions by repeatedly scaring them away.

He teaches the kids, who come into their jubilant and powerful own with this task, how to hunt lions. They dress up in hilariously cute costumes and race about the theater empowered, yelling " hunt! hunt! hunt! " until their unity and strength drive away the bullies. But even after success, Asad is wary: " Lions always come back. "

Lion Hunting on Munjoy Hill
Written by John Urquhart. Directed by Pamela DiPasquale. With Mohamed Abdirahman, Jared Mongeau, Catherine Wallace, and Hue Edwards. At the Children’s Theatre of Maine, through April 6. Call (207) 878-2774.

BACKSTAGE

• The free workshop showing of Tim Rubel’s Eggs Over Eric just wound up. A longish one-act with strong interaction and dialogue and excellent emotional moments, it has been entered in PSC’s Clauder competition.

• Michael Tobin, formerly at MainePlay Productions, has started Cocheco Stage Company in Dover, New Hampshire, in what was the Edwin Booth Theater. Shows are already under way, and a full summer season is planned. Watch this space for more.

• Theater in crisis: You can help prevent the next casualty in Maine’s tough theater business from being the Oddfellow Theater in Buckfield. Visit www.oddfellow.com to keep this lively operation going, and get John Baldacci to help, too.

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