City Theatre explores immigration stories at the heart of Pittsburgh

City Theatre’s welcome back to indoor theatre invites us to cross paths with neighbors who once were strangers in a strange land but found a home amid the slopes and flats of Pittsburgh.

By Sharon Eberson

Immigrant and refugee experiences past and present are the focus of City’s The River’s Don’t Know, a new work that marks the South Side company’s first indoor performance in 18 months. The community-centered play runs Sept. 10-19 at Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse. All performances are free, but reservations are required at playhouse.pointpark.edu/tickets.

The Rivers Don’t Know feels like it’s the heart of all we’re doing at City Theatre at the moment,” said Clare Drobot, who helped to guide the project as it evolved over the course of two seasons.

The spark was a conversation between Drobot and Marc Masterson, who with Monteze Freeland now form the artistic director trio at City.

“I wanted to do a community-based project, and Clare and I talked about it and decided to focus on immigration in Pittsburgh,” Masterson recalled. “Clare took that, and she ran down the field, to use a football analogy, and has made it happen. It’s a good example of how we work together and what can happen when a team is bringing the best of themselves to realize a vision.”

The play is based on interviews and story circles conducted by playwright James McManus and director Michael John Garcés. The conversations with immigrant communities and partner organizations throughout Pittsburgh took place in person and virtually during the pandemic shutdown.

“The cast is almost entirely community members, from the relationship we’ve built with ARYSE, which is a refugee support organization, and other relationships,” Drobot said. “It’s going to be this magical thing.”

Drobot emphasized how proud she is that the first indoor performances by City since the COVID-19 shutdown are not only “100 percent free, but also as safe a process as we can make them at any given moment.”

The project is supported by the Allegheny Regional Asset District’s RADical ImPAct program, which was created in honor of RAD’s 25th anniversary in 2019. The premiere will be part of RADical Days, the annual free-admission “thank you” to the public for its tax dollars in support of the arts.

Among local partners working with City Theatre are The All for All Coalition powered by the Global Switchboard, Global Minds, Literary Pittsburgh, JFCS Refugee & Immigrant Services and the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh. The collaboration, however, doesn’t stop at our borders. Director Garcés comes to the project as an ensemble member of Cornerstone Theater Company of Los Angeles. Mcmanus has had his plays developed and produced there and across the country, including “Dorothy 6” at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company.

The 30-year-old Cornerstone company’s mission is to “bring together an ensemble of professional artists of the highest caliber with people who would never think of themselves as artists to produce works of excellence based on the stories, concerns and issues of a given community.”

McManus’ play centers on three interlocking stories of Pittsburgh immigration — a 1940s steelworker, a Somali family, and an ESL (English as a second language) class — “with the idea of exploring what it means to call the steel city home.”
Examples of the eclectic cast include Serap Uzunoglu, who came to the United States as a refugee after the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Farooq Ameen Al-Said is a singer and rapper and the director of operations for the 1Hood Media Academy, while Shravani Charyulu holds an MFA in filmmaking from Chatham and currently works as a business analytics consultant at PNC. (Find a full cast list at https://citytheatrecompany.org/play/the-rivers-dont-know/).

Everyone has a story to tell.

“Writing a play where the words are not strictly from my imagination, but from people who sat across from me feels like a sacred trust,” McManus said.

The project does not stop at the performance. When Freeland joined City Theatre’s staff last year, he expanded the production with community outreach to help create an Artisan Marketplace before each performance.

“It is open to the public as well [as theatre-goers] to check out art and merchandise from vendors. There will be food, too, and each night, we’re going to also have a different person doing a small set,” Freeland said. “We have Hugo CruzMiguel Sague and Vic [Mutherna] from 1Hood, in addition to Kaleb Kenner, who’s going to bring some dance to the courtyard at the Playhouse, along with Samuel BoytagnJet Yan … and so we have people who come from various backgrounds who can relate to this story and the undercurrent of what being a refugee or an immigrant can mean in different aspects of their lives.

He continued, “It will be really nice getting the audience in a mindset of hearing a different sound, tasting a different style of food or seeing something in the art world they may not have experienced before.”
From the marketplace to the new play, audience members will get a taste of how their neighbors contribute to the vitality of Pittsburgh.

“Even being in rehearsals, and Marc and Monteze can attest, it’s just a joy to be in the room as we look at stories of immigration in the past and present and how they are building a new Pittsburgh, a new city,” Drobot said. “It’s really beautiful.”

7:30 p.m. Fri., Sept 10
3 and 7:30 p.m., Sat. Sept 11
3 p.m. Sun., Sept 12
7:30 p.m. Thurs., Sept 16
7:30 p.m. Fri., Sept 17
3 and 7:30 p.m., Sat. Sept 18
3 p.m. Sun., Sept 19

Reservations and information for the performances at the Highmark Stage, Pittsburgh Playhouse, 300 Forbes Ave., Downtown: playhouse.pointpark.edu/tickets/specialEvents/riversdontknow or the Pittsburgh Playhouse box office, 412-392-8000.

Protocols are set by the Playhouse and may be evolving. Visit playhouse.pointpark.edu for details.
All City and Playhouse staff and patrons will be required to wear masks at all times while inside the venue.
Seating capacity has been reduced by at least 70% for performances
Patrons are asked not to attend if they are not feeling well or have been exposed or potentially exposed to someone exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, or have recently tested positive for the virus.
The Playhouse intends to require proof of vaccination for all patrons.

Sharon Eberson is the former Arts & Entertainment editor and theatre critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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