Greek-Syrian Actress-Director Rafika Chawishe Talks to TNH

Rafika Chawishe. Photo: Courtesy of Rafika Chawishe

NEW YORK – The A.S. Onassis Program in Hellenic Studies at New York University presents Theatre of the Refuge by Rafika Chawishe on Monday, September 24, 6 PM, at 53 Washington Square South, Room 324. Chawishe recently completed the Lincoln Center Theatre Director’s Lab 2018 and just returned from Mexico where she finished a long durational performance in collaboration with Mexican artists Astrid Rondero and Fernanda Valadez.

The lonely Citizen is based on the immigrant Alcira Soust Scaffo’s extraordinary story, hiding in a 4th floor bathroom of the National Autonomous University of Mexico for 15 days when the army occupied the University one week before the Tlatelolco Massacre. Chawishe, whose mother is Greek and father is English-Syrian, is an award-winning actress-director, and a devoted children’s legal rights’ activist. Ahead of her presentation at NYU, she spoke with The National Herald about her latest project with her theatre company Zlap Collective, Europeana, which earned an Ibsen Awards Scholarship in 2017.

The production is based on Henrik Ibsen’s Little Eyolf and Chawishe’s research and interviews with 150 refugees, all unaccompanied minors, on the island of Lesvos’ first reception center. As noted on the Ibsen Awards Scholarships website, “The rising international impact of migration is a core challenge of world politics today, facing especially the European countries with great moral dilemmas. Since the escalation of migrating refugees from North African and Arab countries started years ago, it has been said that Greece stands at the forefront of a critical battle in defense of the principles of freedom, open society, and humanity. Noticeably, these are the values on which the united Europe itself is founded.”

An image from Europeana, the latest project by Rafika Chawishe. Photo: Courtesy of Rafika Chawishe

Ibsen’s play raises questions about human responsibility, where Little Eyolf’s parents, Alfred and Rita Allmers, refuse to accept the identity of their own child who is crippled. How is identity defined today? Who am I, and am I accepted? Are my rights defended and exercised? These are questions which will be posed by the Greek theatre company Zlap in their production, Europeana. Drawing on Ibsen, and the interviews with unaccompanied minors, the production delves into who is ultimately responsible for these children. In the interviews, the children shared their dreams and expectations for the future.

Chawishe told TNH, “After one year of research in Lesvos I have interviewed and followed the lives of 150 unaccompanied minors. Many of the children got lost, therefore myself and the research team, have firsthand experience of the loss and the inability to protect these children. The ‘Rat woman’ as we see her in Little Eyolf, has taken them away. The voices of these children speaking about their parents, also about their foster parents in Greece (specifically in Lesvos) and their experience that came out of the parenting of the Greek authorities in Lesvos will be our Little Eyolf. Some of the children are still in Greece, in Lesvos and 18 years old now, these young adults will also find their voice through Little Eyolf. True stories will compose a central story of our Little Eyolfs in Lesvos, Greece, that will be in constant dialogue with the actual play.”

A photo from The lonely Citizen- Long durational performance by Rakia Chawishe in collaboration with Mexican artists Astrid Rondero and Fernanda Valadez, and inspired by immigrant Alcira Soust Scaffo’s extraordinary story. Photo: Courtesy of Rafika Chawishe

She continued, “In our performance Europeana, human responsibility after the loss is examined from the perspective of the humanitarian practices and organizations of the Western Societies, asking ‘what is actually activism?’ and ‘what ultimately are the boundaries between philanthropy and humanitarianism?’ Will we be able as the Allmers [the parents in Ibsen’s drama] to build a social conscience, or are we going to hide behind a false activism? It is interesting to note that Little Eyolf’s story features elements from the Children’s Crusade back in 1212, when many parents lost their children to a war. Therefore we see a constant false representation of what responsibility is.”

Europeana is a music theater piece, directed by Rafika Chawishe, composed by Stavros Gasparatos, and designed by Adonis Volanakis. It opens September 2019 at the Alternative Stage of the National Opera House in Greece and is a co-production between the Ibsen Awards (Norway), the National Opera House in Greece, and Östgötateatern in Sweden. Europeana will also be presented in Norway and in Sweden in 2019.

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