Theater Review: City of Asylum

City of Asylum. Conceived of and directed by Cynthia Croot. Henry Charity Randall Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial Hall, University of Pittsburgh Oakland campus. April 4-14, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8PM, Sunday Matinees at 2PM, ASL Interpretation Performance Saturday, April 6th at 8PM.

reviewed by Dylan Jesse

For the first time in the long history of our species—the first to develop so complex, intricate, and varied a system as language—we have the ability to broadcast our every utterance on a global scale at the slightest whim.With the advent of ever more expansive and refined communication technologies, every bad joke, minor quip, heavy thought, and meager comment can reach from our neighbors to our friends to people we may never meet. We put ourselves so readily out to the globally connected community, but how many of us are willing to face imprisonment, hard labor, torture, or exile for the thoughts and words we proffer? This is a consequence that many courageous individuals—whether or not we ever read their works or learn their names—face across the globe even as you and I sit and read these words from the comfort of our chairs. Our words are arguably one of our greatest achievements as a species, and even in this hyper-connected age they can bear a terrifying weight. They can spark revolutions (look to the impact outlets like Twitter had on the momentum of the protests in Egypt and Tunisia for a recent example) or end the lives of those who penned them. Thankfully, Pittsburgh provides refuge for a few invaluable voices as part of the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), allied stateside as part of the Cities of Asylum network with Las Vegas and Ithaca. An under-sung feature of the Steel City, this program gets much-needed exposure in the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre’s newest original production, City of Asylum.

In its 90-minute continuous run time, City of Asylum brings to the stage a stirring collage of material cobbled together from interviews, videos, online journals, poem, and other works of the authors that have been supported by the City of Asylum program operating here in Pittsburgh: Israel Centeno (from Venezuela), Khet Mar (from Burma), Horacio Castellanos Moya (from El Salvador), and Huang Xiang (from China). These four luminaries have faced horrors unimaginable to most of us for the works they authored—be them journalistic, fictional, or poetic—and it is to their credit that they had the determination and courage to say what they have. City of Asylum highlights the beauty and artfulness of their words as well as the unfathomable brutality they endured in their homelands. The production brings together the circumstance, character, and a brief taste of the content that has brought these four individuals to Pittsburgh as part of ICORN. The interweaving of the writers’ works with dramatic presentations of their personal stories and own words is a challenging task that, under the direction of Cynthia Croot, the Pitt Rep cast pulls off with acumen.

The production itself is a patchwork multimedia presentation that utilizes the fullness of the proscenium stage’s backdrop to immerse the audience in the world of each of the four featured writers, starting with the most recent City of Asylum writer-in-residence, Israel Centeno, and working back to the first, the revolutionary dissident poet Huang Xiang. Each is handled differently: the emphasis on Centeno’s own works; the childhood and eventual emigration of Khet Mar; the captivating depiction of Castellanos Moya’s journalistic background and writing process; the torment of Huang Xiang and the entrancing poetry he was able to produce even during years of torture and incarceration. City of Asylum is smartly crafted to whet the audience’s appetite to seek out the authors’ works themselves.

While the entire cast delivers emotionally challenging and memorable performances, not to be missed is the Pitt Rep debut of Weiqi Li and his powerhouse performance of Huang Xiang’s poetry (projected on the backdrop in the author’s native writing) in the fourth and closing act. The merging of a bi-lingual spoken presentation, the multimedia projection, and the otherwise spartan staging lay bare the beating heart of the writing that provided the impetus for City of Asylum. Though the other three acts are all done entirely in English (with a few words and phrases exempted), all are done with deft emotional precision. We are truly privileged to have them as part of our city, as part of our Pittsburgh literary culture, and as part of our global writing community. And we are equally privileged to have a director, a university, and a repertory theatre that are willing to help share their contributions with not just Pittsburgh, and not just the literary or theater-going audience, but with the ever-growing global voice demanding the freedom of and respect for artistic expression.

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