Children’s theater pushes hot buttons

Dual world preems address immigration issues

MINNEAPOLIS — While it’s not unheard of for a theater company’s work to echo current events, Minneapolis’ Children’s Theater Company recently was in the unique position of staging simultaneous world premieres addressing the issue that saw hundreds of thousands of Americans take to the streets: immigration.

“You don’t plan it this way,” admits CTC artistic director Peter Brosius, pointing out that the company commissioned both works more than two years ago. “Sometimes this just happens. It’s a great thing that the human story of immigration, the refugee, can be made manifest at a time when it is part of the discourse, part of the language and certainly part of a massive political agenda.”

Lynne Alvaraz’s play, “Esperanza Rising,” was based on a children’s book by Pam Munoz Ryan. In it, a privileged young girl in 1930s Mexico is forced off her family land by greedy relatives after her father’s death. She travels to Americawhere she lives in a farm labor camp amid the privations of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. While it was aimed at children age 8 and older, the production, which closed April 16, was unstinting in its portrayal of anxious border crossings, labor unrest and race discrimination.

Even more radical is “Anon(ymous),” playing on CTC’s secondary Cargill Stage through April 30.

This original script by Naomi Iizuka adapts “The Odyssey” into an elliptical adventure story about a young man who flees a war-torn land for America, where he searches for his identity amid stylized trials of consumerism, butchery, violence and seduction.

“When I set out to adapt ‘The Odyssey,’ I was thinking about political and economic refugees,” says Iizuka, “people who have made their way to America to make their lives for their children.”

The play, directed by Brosius and with Michael Escamilla in the title role, continues CTC’s programming for teen audiences. It is being received locally as a successful experiment in combining big production values (smoke, strobes, elaborate lighting) with a nonlinear script and a cohesive take on the refugee’s desperation and longing for a sense of belonging.

“For me, Odysseus is someone who is displaced,” adds Iizuka. “He is searching for, and trying to find, a home. And that definition of home is really fraught and complicated.”

The shows overlapped for nearly two weeks, both relating to the major hot-button issue of the day.

Brosius acknowledges this fortuitous coincidence but is quick to add that previous shows at CTC have mined the same lode of synchronicity. As an example, he mentions the 2003 regional premiere of James Still’s “Amber Waves,” about Kansas farmers who went to great lengths to protect their way of life.

“When we opened ‘Amber Waves,’ there was a piece in the paper that day about a family being forced off their farm because of drought,” he says.

In another instance, CTC opened Jeffrey Hatcher’s Holocaust story “Korczak’s Children” simultaneously with the current Iraq War. The line that touched off the sense of portentous coincidence: “Today the war began.”

Life imitates art. Brosius adds that such congruence is inevitable when a company strives to do relevant work.

“You choose two shows you love,” he adds. “You find a mix and balance of things, two extraordinary playwrights, two women of color. You get two world premieres touching on the hottest issue in the country.”