Cast of The Refugees poses in costume

James Shakow ‘22 (left), Ariel Urim Chung ‘21 (down front) and Rachel McPhee (back) in The Refugees. Image courtesy of Chris Record. 

Ellie Stewart (She/Her) ’24, Theatre Critic

The Refugees, written and directed by Steve Kaliski ‘07, premiered at Davidson College in the Barber Theatre on August 19th. The cast consisted of a combined group of Davidson students, both current and former, and actors in the company at Adjusted Realists, an independent theatre group based in New York. The play takes place during a refugee crisis in Argos, Greece. The setting combines elements of ancient Greece with modernity. The plot centers on the privileged class of Argos. Queen Clytemnestra (Rachel McPhee, Adjusted Realists) opposes admitting refugees to Argos, while her children, Electra (Ariel Urim Chung ‘21) and Orestes (James Shakow ‘22), push for them to be allowed entry. Electra plots a ruse featuring Orestes and his partner, Pylades (Matt Mastromatteo, Adjusted Realists), in order to convince Clytemnestra to let the refugees into Argos. This plan is only partially successful: Clytemnestra allows only a third of the refugees into Argos.

I saw The Refugees on the evening of August 21st. I arrived on campus that Saturday, and I hadn’t even finished moving into my dorm. In light of the new school year, with a changed set of Covid restrictions and fresh faces, I was incredibly excited to return to seeing theatrical productions as we once knew them. The Refugees was originally scheduled to premiere in the spring of 2020, but the opening of the show was stalled on account of the pandemic. Throughout the night, audience members experienced what felt like a return to normalcy. 

The set of The Refugees consisted of four large pillars across the back of the stage with opaque plastic sheets strung up between them. These sheets were used throughout the show to separate the refugees from the royalty, creating a literal physical barrier that paralleled the emotional distance of these two groups. Disconnection serves as a major theme throughout the show. For example, Electra and Orestes endlessly research the logistics of letting the refugees into their country, despite having never met a refugee. Queen Clytemnestra refuses to even consider their entry. The distance that the royal family keeps from the refugees prevents them from truly knowing what it is that the refugees need.

Tensions climax when the children finally convince the queen to visit the refugee camps right outside the walls of Argos. Delegates from groups of refugees present their testimonials and their experiences to her. After hearing the refugees speak about their lives, the sense of emotional distance that the royals had maintained from the refugees evaporates. These testimonials, presented by members of the chorus, were my favorite part of the production. 

Much of the show focuses on the lives of the people in privilege. We see Electra throughout the show trying her hardest to convince her mother, Queen Clytemnestra, that the refugees deserve a home and Argos can easily provide one. Nonetheless, once the royal family finally meets the refugees, they can no longer hide behind their lack of exposure. The first refugee, from Athens, tells their story of wanting to be reunited with their family—to have a home again. The second refugee, from Minoa, shares how they desire a sense of belonging in a place where they can be themself. 

The refugees recounting their experiences and hopes prevents the show from exclusively presenting  the voices of the privileged. The Refugees, despite being named for the refugees, illuminates the dangers of allowing those who are not negatively impacted by a crisis to speak on behalf of those who are. When Electra and Orestes push for the refugees to be allowed into Argos, they are rejected out of hand. Only when the refugees speak for themselves does any change occur.

The Refugees presents a discussion that we need to be having. People at Davidson often fail to consider life outside of this community and campus, myself included. Like the royalty of Argos, we often engage in important conversations while relying exclusively upon abstract concepts and statistics while excluding the people affected by these issues and their lived experiences. It’s important for us to remain part of a global community, to learn more about the people around us, and to hear stories like these that may challenge our stances on these situations.

The Refugees ran from August 19th to the 22nd, 2021. Half of all proceeds went to Refugee Support Services of Charlotte.

Ellie Stewart ‘24 (she/her/hers) is from Memphis, TN, and currently undeclared. She can be reached for comment at elstewart1@davidson.edu.