“For years, whenever anyone mentioned Shakespeare’s As You Like It, I’d say, ‘I hate that play!’”
This is the first thing theater director Jessica Bauman tells me as we sit outside Baruch College’s performing arts center on an unseasonably warm autumn day. It is the first week of rehearsals for her production of Arden/Everywhere: The As You Like It Project, a new interpretation of the very play she spent years hating. Wearing cowboy boots, her brown curls shot through with flashes of bright purple, Bauman, who has directed seven Shakespeare productions, says that she found most interpretations of As You Like It, “trivial and not funny enough. And why does everyone in Arden look like they just walked out of an L.L. Bean catalog? They should be starving!”
“Why starving?” I ask.
As You Like It has all the set pieces of a typical Shakespearian comedy: cross dressing, romance, and silly comic bits. It may seem a stretch to reframe this beloved, pastoral romp as a displaced persons story, but Bauman insists that her interpretation is faithful to the text. “Read the play. Just read it,” Bauman says. “Because if you really read it, that’s what’s going on, that’s what you find in the language.”
The play opens on a young woman being accused of treason. Her father, a benevolent duke, has been overthrown in a political coup; Rosalind is warned that if she comes within twenty miles of the court, “thou diest.” In order to save her life, Rosalind disguises herself as a man. “It’s played as a fun dress-up scene,” Bauman says, “where she’s trying on different newsies caps, but really this is a moment when her life is in danger, she must leave her home and all her belongings, and in order to survive, she must even give up her identity.”
When Bauman began work on the project three years ago, the refugee crisis was not splashed across the pages of every newspaper. “People were like, ‘Refugees? That’s kind of random,’” Bauman says. And then a toddler washed up on the beach in Greece, and her random obsession became front-page news. “I have never been so prescient in my life,” she tells me.
“When we read about the numbers”—There are 65 million displaced people in the world right now, the largest number since World War II—“we are caught between overwhelming statistics and nativist fear mongering. They’re not people any more, they’re problems,” explains Bauman, who believes that those of us on the outside of the crisis need access to experiences that make us feel closer to each other. “And that’s where theater comes in,” she says. “Theater is all about empathy. So let theater do its work.”
In order to immerse herself in the world of refugees, Bauman took a position as director of theater arts at the International Rescue Committee’s Refugee Youth Summer Academy, facilitated workshops with students at the Arab American Center in Bay Ridge, and analyzed Shakespeare’s famous “All the World’s a Stage” monologue with recent Russian émigrés at the International Center in lower Manhattan. But working with people who had recently been resettled in the U.S. gave Bauman only half of the picture. “If I was really going to do this I had to meet people before they were resettled. I had to go to a camp.”
It turns out it’s not so easy to go to a refugee camp. “You can’t just show up,” Bauman explains. There are restrictions and requirements, and, with so much chaos and political turmoil, it can be hard to score an invitation to a camp.
It was a bit of kismet—as Bauman calls the good fortune that has blessed this project from the beginning—that connected her with FilmAid, an international NGO that uses film to bring life-saving information to communities affected by displacement. FilmAid had just discovered that four theater troupes had formed among the 200,000 Africans living in Kakuma, a camp in the Rift Valley in the North West corner of Kenya. They needed theater professionals to conduct skillbuilding workshops. Bauman jumped at the chance.
For two weeks in the spring of 2016, Bauman taught theater games and storytelling exercises to forty refugees at Kakuma. “Everything about it was different than I expected,” she recounts. “There were things I completely took for granted about how theater classes work.”
“For instance?” I ask.
“Circles. They did not get that. They thought it was weird how much I wanted them to stand in a circle with me and connect. I swear they were all thinking, ‘Okay we’ll just indulge this white lady now.’”
Because of the language barrier, Bauman had to get creative with how she communicated. One of the skills Bauman focused on was becoming conscious of every gesture, each movement. The one word she learned in Swahili was “pole pole,” or “slow”: “The slower we went the more meaningful our actions became.”
The experience deepened her approach to the play in surprising ways. “Before I went to Kakuma, I didn’t know what to do with all of those interstitial Shakespearean scenes of what I call the ‘goofy rustic people’. What, I wondered, do they have to do with the refugee crisis?”
Then Bauman experienced the fullness of life in a camp. “People get flattened out by the list of all the bad things that happened to them. But you can have been through unspeakable things and still love to play and dance and fall in love and have stupid fights with your friends. All of those things are happening in refugee camps.”
When I arrive to observe Bauman at work, it’s day three of rehearsal and she’s sitting in a circle with her troupe. Comprised of individuals from Russia, Uzbekistan, Ecuador, Columbia, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Kenya, the UK, and Liberia, eleven of the sixteen actors in the production are foreign born. Wherever they are from, they seem to have taken to the theater circle—they lean in, listening intently to Bauman’s words.
Jessica stands up and says, “Let’s get to work.” The actors take their places.
On the docket is the scene where Rosalind arrives at the refugee camp, Arden, for the first time and is promptly swindled out of her life’s savings. While Rosalind departs with her purse, a soccer game takes place around her.
“What every refugee camp has in common is soccer,” says Bauman. “Soccer is the thing people do so they don’t go crazy.”
Kenneth De Abrew, who plays Corin, a shepherd who works in the camp, describes the initial rehearsals as a mini soccer camp. De Abrew, who grew up in Sri Lanka and received an MFA in acting from Louisiana State University, thinks it’s a perfect metaphor. “Everybody gets soccer.”
Soccer is the connector, a sort of nonverbal communication in this world, and it quickly becomes clear that Bauman’s As You Like It is a soccer game in which the players happen to speak in iambic pentameter.
Liba Vaynberg, who plays Celia (Rosalind’s loyal friend who offers to flee with her), is a first generation American who spoke only Russian at home. “I didn’t learn English until I went to school,” she says. Vaynberg does not see Bauman’s emphasis on refugees as stripping the play of humor but rather upping the drama by, “adding in the stakes of exile.”
De Abrew, who also plays Charles the court wrestler, believes that refugees have become the central issue of our time. He points out that the crisis sometimes hits closer to home than you realize. “We have refugees in Florida and Texas right now.”
Murodilla Fatkhullaev, who emigrated from Uzbekistan five years ago when his family won the green card lottery, participated in a workshop for refugees and immigrants that Bauman taught at Baruch last fall. He is now part of the ensemble. A senior at City College, studying biology and theater, he is drawn to acting because it allows him to “forget everything for a moment and be someone different.”
“Soccer is huge in my country,” Fatkhullaev says, “but I used to hate it.” Street soccer is very competitive in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, and no one ever passed the ball to Fatkhullaev. Now, as a member of the ensemble, he’s perfecting his ball skills with movement director Brandon Powers. “I finally get the ball!” Fatkhullaev says.
Bauman believes that who is in the audience is just as essential as who is on stage, and this production of Arden/Everywhere has made community outreach a priority. Rebecca Kenigsberg, Community Engagement Director, has been on the job since June. Kenigsberg, who spent the summer running workshops and tutorials at immigrant centers and religious organizations, says, “It’s all about establishing the connection and finding out what a particular community needs.” With the right introduction to the play, Kenigsberg believes everyone will be able to “see moments of their story told on stage.”
When rehearsal ends, I walk out with Fatkhullaev. I ask him what he thinks of doing As You Like It as a refugee story.
“It’s a very good idea that Jessica has,” he replies. “She is trying to show us another beauty. The beauty hidden within the beauty.”