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Following 'Refugia' opening, the Guthrie asks tough questions about diversity both onstage and in the audience

Christina Baldwin and Nathan Keepers in the Moving Company's production of "Refugia."

Christina Baldwin and Nathan Keepers in the Moving Company's production of "Refugia."

The Moving Company’s Refugia opened at the Guthrie last month, to generally positive — including some downright rapturous — reviews from the mainstream media. As conversations about the show continued, though, some important questions started to come to the fore.

On her blog One Girl Two Cities, Laura vanZandt wrote that the show about refugees and border crossings had “both silenced the oppressed characters and given them a singular voice instead of allowing them to have individual voices. I identify as a female person of color with an immigrant mother, and it saddens me to not have found any reason to connect to this show.”

At Minnesota Playlist, Kory Pullam wrote that “the only thing epic about Refugia is the complete lack of awareness of its problematic nature. From beginning to end, it is a production that feels like yet another story that was told from the perspective of individuals who are in a bubble.”

Pullam also quoted Meghan Kreidler, an Asian-American actor who participated in the show’s workshopping process. “The workshop lasted for three weeks, but I spent most of that time on the outside watching.” Kreidler told Pullam. “When I was utilized, it felt like I was just there to fill in blanks, to help move the white characters' narratives forward, but without really having any voice or significance within those scenes.”

Pullam and vanZandt were both at the Guthrie on Wednesday night, sitting on chairs in front of the Wurtele Thrust Stage, where a towering frame has been constructed for the theater’s upcoming production of Sunday in the Park with George. Alongside the two were all four of the Moving Company’s principals: Steven Epp, Dominique Serrand, Nathan Keepers, and Christina Baldwin. Guthrie Theater artistic director Joseph Haj was there too, for a conversation that was moderated by Carra Martinez, the Guthrie’s director of community engagement.

The public event, billed as a “community conversation” and attracting about 100 people, was scheduled after Twin Cities Theater Bloggers approached the Guthrie, said Martinez. The bloggers’ suggestion for a conversation dovetailed, said Martinez, with plans for a conversation the company had been developing internally.

(Martinez opened the conversation with a request that attendees agree it not be recorded, in the interest of creating a safe space. Out of respect for that agreement I won’t attribute direct quotes, but will convey the sense of the conversation.)

The hourlong event, which began with the Moving Company artists explaining the process of creating the show and ended with about a half-hour of open Q&A, was marked by frequent expressions of respect for the company members — who have a long history in the community, having led the pathbreaking Theatre de la Jeune Lune — and their work. Nonetheless, panelists and audience members had a range of critical questions about Refugia.

A core concern that was voiced is that although the production includes numerous artists of color, it ultimately centers on the voices and perspective of the Moving Company principals, who are white. A character played by Epp frames the show, stepping to the fore during both its opening and closing moments. In a scene set on the U.S.-Mexico border, a young Latina girl stands silently; in other scenes, the comparative silence of performers of color isn’t as pointed but is still felt.

The U.S.-Mexico scene has also been criticized for its use of heavy body padding on Baldwin (eight of the show’s nine scenes, we learned, actually incorporate some form of body padding) and for enticing laughs at its white characters’ surprised reactions to a Latino man who doesn’t speak Spanish.

Questions about that scene and others zeroed in on whether audience members were laughing “for the right reasons.” Are the Guthrie’s many white, economically privileged ticket-buyers laughing with uncomfortable realizations about unfair assumptions, as the company intended — or are they just laughing at the stereotypes?

Company members, while voicing appreciation for the feedback, defended the Mexican border scene, as well as the extended scene in which Keepers plays “Tamara,” a character previously seen in the company’s Liberty Falls, 54321. Keepers spoke of his sincere identification with the character, who’s intended to be funny on her own terms, not the butt of sniggering.

The question of intention versus result has become central in the conversation around Refugia, which coincides with simultaneous conversations about Sam Durant’s sculpture Scaffold and Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket. In all three cases, white artists have sparked criticism for addressing the experiences of communities of color without adequately (or at all) engaging members of those communities in the process of creation. Refugia was developed and is performed in active collaboration with artists of color, but ultimately, it still centers the experiences and perspectives of the white artists who lead the project.

Haj, still fresh in his tenure as artistic director, spoke just a couple of times during the Wurtele conversation; mostly, he sat and listened. He’s made it a stated priority to deepen the Guthrie’s engagement with diverse local communities, and Refugia was developed as part of his Level Nine Initiative, which aims not only to present innovative and accessible work in the Dowling Studio but to bring it downstairs. (Refugia is presented on the McGuire Proscenium Stage.)

In addition to questions about who’s creating this work, Refugia raises questions about who’s seeing it. What will it take to get a Guthrie mainstage audience laughing for the right reasons? Different work, perhaps, but also a different audience. Diversifying the Guthrie’s mainstage audience remains part of Haj’s challenge moving forward.

The Refugia conversation was also a welcome sign of the growing importance of of the blogosphere in the Twin Cities theater scene. Online writers like those united under the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers umbrella are now leading the way in adding diversity to media coverage of local theater, and the Refugia conversation suggests that both artists and audiences are listening.