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Taking Refuge

Adaptation of Greek tragedy comes to Cambridge

By Kristi L. Jobson, Crimson Staff Writer

A young refugee stands blindfolded in the middle of a bare stage. She shakes as a man in camouflage holds a knife to her throat. Audience members cringe as crimson pours down her jeans and t-shirt.

She could be a Romanov in the Russian Revolution, a Vietnamese child during the war, a woman in today’s Afghanistan. But though this is a tale of modern-day international politics, her dialogue was crafted millennia ago by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides.

In a new twist on the classic tragedy The Children of Herakles, Director Peter M. Sellars ’80 puts policymakers, journalists and Boston-area refugees on stage to make a political statement about the plight of displaced persons.

This production, now playing at the American Repertory Theater (ART), marks the eighth professional staging of Euripides’ little-known tragedy about children who are forced to flee their homeland after their father’s death. Sellars’ adaptation was recently performed in Germany, Italy and France, each time with a dramatically different dynamic, according to the director, who now brings the show to the United States for the first time.

Sellars, who was born in Pittsburgh in 1957, is world-famous for staging bizarre twists on classic drama. With his short frame dressed in bright colors and elaborate accessories, Sellars speaks slowly and never breaks eye contact. He smiles frequently from beneath a shock of brown hair that resembles Astroturf.

A friend introduced him to Herakles five years ago, but after Sept. 11 Sellars says he felt the show—written in 430 B.C.—was especially appropriate.

“Art needs a reality compass and the reality needs art,” he says. “You won’t believe how utterly contemporary it is—the language is so vivid…15 minutes in you find yourself breathing differently. You appreciate [Euripides’] art, you really open your heart.”

It’s All Greek to Me

Sellars uses a traditional translation, in part, he says, to avoid accusations that he twisted Euripides’ Greek to fit a political agenda.

“This is not propaganda, it’s about fairness and opening the issues to discussion,” he says.

Audiences attending Herakles this month see more than just a play—they will participate in a five-hour event.

Before each performance, a different group of local scholars and policymakers are interviewed by journalist Christopher Lydon, and Boston-area refugees share their stories.

After the play, the audience can speak with both the cast and the refugee participants over food prepared by local immigrant communities.

To end the night, Sellars, in conjunction with the Harvard Film Archive, chose non-documentary films to provide an artistic perspective on the plight of refugees.

“Film humanizes,” he says. “It’s not a problem, it’s people, and their family is so close to yours you can’t believe it.”

Lydon says he will engage public figures, refugees and audience members in an emotional and “eye-opening” discussion.

“My role is to help them communicate and select their stories, whether it’s the moment they left Somalia or where their family may be…I will help connect the dots,” he says. “We have all heard the clichés. These stories are anything but.”

‘No One Has Said No’

Multimillionaire philanthropist Gregory C. Carr, who also serves on the ART’s board, is funding the pre-performance speaker schedule. A team from the Carr Foundation has helped the ART interview refugees to participate in Herakles.

According to the Carr Foundation’s Rebecca Sheahan, Sellars’ vision is inspiring and optimistic.

“Once I explain Herakles to refugees, they are curious, but Peter does all the magic,” she says. “No one has said no. He’s infected them with belief in the project.”

Sellars says he urges refugee participants to think of “five things they want to say during their speeches, five things they’d want fellow Americans on their subway to know.”

“People are compelled to talk about different things from night to night,” he says.

Sellars leans forward when he talks about how much the refugees’ stories affect those who hear them.

“No two families are the same,” he says. “You realize how inadequate the generalizations are.”

Sellars sighs and looks off into space quietly, quoting an Afghan woman who told him, “We don’t want your money, we want your freedom.”

When Herakles was performed in Paris, Sellars says, a refugee participant afraid to speak on stage had her voice projected to the audience while she stayed in a room in the basement.

Sellars says he hopes audiences will leave his show informed and hopeful, with “tears not of pity but of cleansing.”

At one point in the production a character tells Herakles’ children to thank their “real friends—remember them as friends who saved your lives.” The refugee children leave the stage and shake hands with everyone in the audience.

Look to the Children

Refugee children, mainly recruited by Sellars from the International Center at Cambridge Ringe and Latin School, portray Herakles’ exiled children. International Center Director Arnold Clayton describes Sellars’ presentation to the students as “mesmerizing.”

“He told them the world needs to see them for who they are,” he says.

At a dress rehearsal last Friday, the 26 young participants—who speak different languages and represent almost every continent—ate pizza, joked and braided each others’ hair.

One 16-year-old student from Haiti says talking with Sellars convinced him to be part of Herakles.

“This show is good for immigrants,” he says. “The U.S. should be waiting for immigrants with open arms.”

According to Clayton, many of these children work up to 40 hours a week, to support their families in America and abroad.

Most of them say their greatest challenge coming to America was learning English.

Femida Sheikh, 18, says she struggled in school when she emigrated from India five years ago.

“I cried a lot,” she says. “I didn’t know what the teacher was saying.”

Anayit Hailu from Ethiopia says the language barrier makes it “difficult to meet someone, to meet a friend.”

Sheikh and Yasmin Dugla, 16, are both Muslim, and say they have felt discriminated against post-Sept 11.

“No one really said anything, but the way they looked at us,” Sheikh says, pausing. “Strange.”

Bringing it Home

The staging of Herakles allows for a wide variety of interpretations, according to Sellars.

The set is sparse, consisting only of a small altar and microphones. The cast wears minimalist modern clothing: jeans and t-shirts, or business suits.

“Image is so cheap,” says Sellars, “Euripides gives image a microphone and makes it real people.”

Sellars says he wanted to point out the parallels between the U.S. and the Greeks.

“These are the people who invented theater and democracy. They go together,” he says. “You hire a poet so there’s hope. Government is not good on the hope side of things.”

He cocks his head to the side, stroking the buttons on his Chinese collared orange jacket.

“Democracy is really just about people sharing space with each other. That’s what theater is,” he says.

Sellars says his show will challenge stereotypes of refugees as criminals.

“These are the very people who will be able to put the pieces together and make the world safer.”

—The Children of Herakles runs until Jan. 25 in the Loeb Drama Center at 64 Brattle St.

—Irin Carmon contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Kristi L. Jobson can be reached at

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