Twelve stories, one heart: Hancher play narrates stories of 12 immigrants’ journeys to America

Members of The Actors’ Gang share what it was like to bring their ancestors’ immigrant stories to stages around the world.


Ashley Randall

Jenna Post, Arts Reporter

The Actors’ Gang, a Los Angeles-based theatre company known for its contemporary pieces and unique acting techniques, returns to Hancher for the first time since 2006 to share American immigrant stories through their original play, The New Colossus.

The play, which The Actors Gang will perform at Hancher at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, is titled after the poem of the same name inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. Emma Lazarus wrote the poem in 1883 and has been a beacon of hope for immigrants and refugees for decades.

One refugee who fled to America in search of the promises of The New Colossus was Actor’s Gang actress Stephanie Lee’s grandmother, who escaped from war-torn Vietnam.

The New Colossus isn’t just one story, it’s everyone’s story,” Lee said. “My character is based on my grandmother… but it’s influenced by stories that my grandparents, my parents, my aunts and uncles told me that actually happened to them or their friends during the Vietnam War. I pieced those stories together to create a character who is the spirit of my grandmother.”

Each cast member’s character is reflective of an immigrant in their family.

“Audience members have said it’s a play that they didn’t know they needed,” Lee said. “It’s opened them to talk about their history, and they want to discover more about their ancestors and how they came to America.”

Hancher Marketing and Communications Director Rob Cline shared a similar sentiment.

“Because the United States is a nation of immigrants, this play, I suspect, will resonate with the many people who are proud of or curious about their own family’s journey to this county,” Cline said.

Cast member Quonta Shanell Beasley said when she joined the production, she immediately knew she wanted to share the story of her three-times great aunt who was sold into slavery.

“I found her story when I was back in college, years ago,” Beasley said. “A cousin of mine had done a family tree, and when I found that in my lineage it really sparked something in me that made it very real in a way that I hadn’t felt before.”

RELATED: Painting the town purple: The Color Purple comes to Hancher

Beasley said despite the different experiences of the cast’s ancestors, their stories all share the same heart.

“We’re telling 12 different stories of 12 different refuges from 12 different time periods,” Beasley said. “And yet, it feels like we actually are telling one story.”

The universality of the stories makes them perfect for The Actors’ Gang signature acting style, commedia dell’arte, which Beasley said emphasizes ensemble acting. The cast functions as a group and includes the audience within the group as well.

“It’s very physical and visceral,” Beasley said. “We really embrace the audience. We know that the audience is part of our production, they’re part of the whole theatre experience.”

The Actors’ Gang has performed The New Colossus for audiences around the world. Beasley said whether the audience is from Chile, Argentina, or the U.S., where they’ve traveled so far, the show resonates.

“The play is universal,” Beasley said. “We get at the hearts of these characters, and because we are in such high-stakes states of emotion, people respond to that moreso than the words we’re saying. They’re hearing what we’re saying, but they’re feeling us on the stage.”

Beasley said humanizing these stories is especially important because of the current political climate surrounding immigration.

“I love that we’re doing this play right now, with what’s happening in America right now, because for me it feels like there’s a greater purpose there,” Beasley said. “It asks who am I and how did I get here, because we all got here somehow.”