SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — "The New Colossus," a play which is at Proctors Theatre Friday evening and Saturday afternoon, gets its title from the sonnet by Emma Lazarus, which is on the base of the Statue of Liberty.
Most are familiar with the lines:
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send those, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."
Not long ago it would have seemed unimaginable that those sentiments could be considered political — but here we are.
"The New Colossus" is written and directed by Tim Robbins, a man who is known both as a talented actor-producer-director, and an outspoken activist who is dedicated to social causes. With this pedigree, how can such a work not be political?
In a recent telephone interview Robbins insisted the work is not a diatribe.
"It is first and foremost a piece of theater that will entertain, engage the senses and provoke thought," Robbins said. "'The New Colossus' is the stuff of classic literature. Everyone takes the heroes' journey."
Robbins acknowledges that in a country divided, even the simplest gesture will have political undercurrents. "There is a lot of hateful rhetoric going on right now. The arguments are divisive. How do you convince people of anything when no one is listening to anyone?" he asked.
Answering his own question, he said, "You don't do it by telling stories in which there are only bad guys. You don't do it with one side having only good guys. You must find the shading. My goal is to create a story that is filled with passion, but told with humility. I want the audience to have a meaningful experience, not platitudes on a platter."
Robbins said his goal is to tell a story that unites us as a people. He explained: "'The New Colossus' is about our common roots. It's a search to find our collective DNA.
"The people who left their homelands to find a better life in America were filled with courage, strength and fortitude. We are their descendants and share those qualities. `The New Colossus' is a work that honors our commonality."
The work tells the story of 12 immigrant families, from 12 different parts of the world, covering 12 different time periods and told in 12 different languages. What the immigrants have in common is a desperate need to leave their home country. The reasons were many and varied, but in "The New Colossus," most have to do with oppression.
"For some it was the inability to worship their own God," Robbins said. "For others it was the loss of freedoms of speech and liberty. Mostly it was about the loss of a shared ideal. People came to understand and say to themselves, "This is no longer my country. I will not accept Fascism or Nazi rule. I will not accept the degradation of the common man. I will flee and find a better way of life."
Robbins keeps returning to the theme that despite our common heritage as descendants of refugees, today immigration is an issue that divides us as a country.
"Our play tells 12 separate stories. They are different, but they are the same. These are stories of people who formed the spine of our country, and today we reject and fear them. It doesn't make sense."
"It's easy to hate in the abstract," Robbins said. "But once you start to look at faces, you find so much you have in common. It builds trust and even love."
Robbins leads a talk-back after every performance. "l learn at every one," he said. And the tough actor-activist admits, "I am just about always moved to tears."