×

Redefining ‘home’ — ‘Refugee’ discusses traumatic effects of displacement

  • Lily Filippatos, a cast member in “Refugee,” rehearses inside a barn at Bramble Hill Farm in Amherst. Greenfield resident and UMass theater professor Milan Dragicevich’s play, “Refugee,” explores immigration from a human perspective through one family’s pre-World War II flight from Serbia into the Sinai desert, eventually scattering across continents. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Tim Eriksen performs at a rehearsal for “Refugee” inside a barn at Bramble Hill Farm in Amherst. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Cast member Nicholas Brix a rehearsal for "Refugee" inside a barn at Bramble Hill Farm in Amherst. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Actress Alyssa Labrie performs in “Refugee” at the UMass Fine Arts Center last December. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Musician Tim Eriksen performs at a showing of “Refugee” at the UMass Fine Arts Center last December. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • A historic photograph of El Shatt Refugee Camp in the desert of the Sinai peninsula in Egypt. Milan Dragicevich’s “Refugee” begins in a refugee camp in the Sinai desert, focusing on Serbian sisters Mara and Sava. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO



Recorder Staff
Friday, October 06, 2017

Refugee immigration is a defining issue of our time, argued by politicians in Washington, D.C., and by western Massachusetts locals in town halls throughout the Pioneer Valley.

Greenfield resident and University of Massachusetts theater professor Milan Dragicevich’s play, “Refugee,” explores immigration from a human perspective through one family’s pre-WWII flight from Serbia into the Sinai desert, eventually scattering across continents.

After a successful premiere at UMass’s Fine Arts Center last December, “Refugee” opens at the Shea Theater Thursday, Oct. 19, at 7:30 p.m., and continues through Sunday, Oct. 22. A portion of proceeds benefit Welcome Home Northampton, an ongoing Catholic Charities project resettling 51 refugees this year.

“My play isn’t about Syria or Iraq, but it resonates with displaced people. I’m hoping that it starts a wider conversation that isn’t just political. The subject of refugees polarizes people along political lines. But I think there’s another way to look at it that isn’t so polarizing,” Dragicevich said.

An epic tale

During a recent rehearsal at Bramble Hill Farm in Amherst, the nine-member cast stood in a circle at the center of a taped pentagon marked on a barn floor, outlining the Shea Theater stage. Their voices harmonized with music by Tim Eriksen, a local Grammy-nominated musician, in a haunting, lonesome song. Eriksen also composed the soundtrack for “Cold Mountain.”

“This looks and feels nice,” Dragicevich commented after. “Your presence is felt, but not completely seen. That’s nice. Really nice. It’s already where it needs to be.”

“I got goosebumps,” agreed actress Elena Nietupski.

“Refugee” isn’t a musical, but live music is integral throughout. It’s an epic tale of displacement, covering 50 years and a few continents, inspired by the story of Dragicevich’s mother, Dragina Kalanj, who evacuated from Yugoslavia to Egypt before the Second World War. Kalanj was a refugee for seven years before immigrating to America.

“We always knew growing up she had this strange refugee past, but she never talked about it,” Dragicevich said. “It was a pretty crude transition, going from peasant farm land to wide-open desert on the Sinai. A lot of children died there.”

“Growing up (in Los Angeles, Calif.), we always had this double identity as Americans and children of Serbian immigrants,” he continued. Dragicevich’s wife, Boyana Dragicevich, also fled Serbia in the 1990s, escaping civil war.

A sense of place

Dragicevich’s play begins in a refugee camp in the Sinai desert, focusing on Serbian sisters Mara and Sava. Then, in bold theatrical style, it travels across generations and oceans, capturing snapshots of the girls’ descendants. One lives in Belgrade during the NATO bombing of Serbia. The other is in eastern Kentucky, the Appalachian Mountains, a location chosen because of its rich culture.

“I’m kind of envious that people can point to a part of that mountain and say ‘this is where I’m from,’” Dragicevich said. “We have this innate desire as people to locate a place that is us. Someplace we’re really connected to that we can go back to, which is deeper than us, stronger than us. That’s why Appalachia is the place.”

“Refugee”also investigates the traumatic effects of displacement, and what ‘home’ means — how a place influences personal identity.

“Americans have a thirst for home, a place they can call a homestead. If you’re living on the 18th floor of a high rise in New York City, you might not have the same connection to someone living in a little holler of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There, you can touch the soil, and get in touch with the land,” he continued.

Eventually, Dragicevich wants to take “Refugee” elsewhere — to Boston, New York — which poses a challenge because production is entirely driven by cast and crew members. There’s no financial backing. But for now, he’s focused on facilitating discussions locally.

“I hope that we as Americans realize we’ve all come to this country from somewhere. It may even go back a couple of generations. In my case, I’m the first generation born here. We as Americans have the immigration story in our background. We have somehow lost that,” Dragicevich said. “When I was in high school, the study of American immigration was viewed as a very enriching study. We used the term ‘melting pot,’ but we don’t use that anymore.”

Benefiting refugee resettlement

So far, the play has raised more than $3,500 on Indiegogo, and a gala in Northampton raised another $500, or so. A portion of that will directly fund resettlement efforts. More information about how to get involved with those efforts can be found at: www.welcomehomenorthampton.org.

“I believe that it is important that we welcome those who seek refuge. In fact, it is imperative,” said actress Olivia Holcomb. “What this play truly harkens to is the heart. It implores people to look beyond prejudice and to see the humanity of it all. It welcomes the audience into an experience, a journey of leaving home and finding home again. It asks us to question, ‘what if this was us?’”

The cast and crew is as follows: actors Eric Long; Nicholas Brix; Lily Filippatos; Matt Hass; Olivia Holcomb; Alyssa Labrie; Eric Love; Nietupski; Glen Proud; Milan Dragicevich, director; Tim Eriksen, music; Tim Holcomb, set designer.

Tickets can be purchased at: www.refugeeplay.brownpapertickets.com, or at the door. Admission is $18 general, $12 for seniors and students. Show times are Thursday, Oct. 19, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Oct. 20, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 21, at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday matinee, Oct. 22, at 2 p.m.

The Shea Theater is at 71 Avenue A in Turners Falls. For more information about the event, email: refugeeplay@gmail.com.