One City, Many Stages, Endless Stories

Rachel Ababio | September 30th, 2020

One City, Many Stages, Endless Stories

Long Wharf Theatre  |  Refugees  |  Storytelling  |  Arts & Culture  |  Theater  |  COVID-19  |  Arts & Anti-racism


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Dr. Ayse Coksun. Screenshots from YouTube.

The woman is too bright to fade into the pale white wall behind her—not for want of trying. She wears an azure abaya with her hair wrapped in a hijab the color of the sky. She contorts her face into a tentative smile, crosses her arms, and digs her fingers into her biceps.

“The funny thing is,” she lets out, “I would never have imagined that a momentary decision—a random decision—” she looks up at a pale white ceiling, “—would change the entire discourse of my personal and professional life.” 

Friday evening, Long Wharf Theatre debuted The New Haven Play Project to over 328 viewers. The film’s launch was a long-awaited collaboration between Long Wharf, the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut (MCCT)Sanctuary Kitchen, and Storytellers New Haven with additional support from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art and the International Association of New Haven

The New Haven Play Project marks the start of Long Wharf’s 2020-2021 season, One City, Many Stages. The title alludes to more than a push past the borders of traditional theater—it exemplifies Long Wharf’s pivot toward virtual programming and community engagement in the wake of COVID-19.

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Ismael Al Hraaki, reading "Everything Is Different." Playwright Noah Golden assisted on the writing.   

One City, Many Stages is meant to be an ‘emergent season,’” said Artistic Director Jacob Padrón. “We want to be in relationship to the community in new ways. We want to respond to what’s happening in the world around us, and we want to center resilience. With civil unrest and COVID-19, we want to be there for our neighbors.” 

The New Haven Play Project, which is in its third year at the theater (read about prior productions here and here) and its first online, holds those sentiments at its core. Its plot comes straight from the community: Long Wharf sourced stories from New Haven’s Muslim, immigrant, and refugee populations. The initiative initially took place after President Trump’s executive orders to bolster immigration restrictions in the United States. Those regulations have only become more stringent due to the novel coronavirus outbreak and Trump's continued vows to crack down on those seeking immigrant, refugee and asylee status in the United States.

Long Wharf’s production was originally a stage play composed of carefully crafted vignettes, but COVID-19 made the plan an impossibility. Undeterred, Director Sharece M. Sellem and Co-Director Cheyenne Barboza took ten stories to center-stage in the new film adaptation. Three of those are below; to hear all ten, watch the video for the project. 

“I’ll say that it was definitely a challenge, but a cool challenge,” Sellem said during a talkback. “Locations were picked very specifically with the idea of social distancing in mind. We still stayed true to the story, highlighted its importance, and made things pretty and interesting.”

“We are trying to imagine the path forward,” Padrón added. “We have to throw out the status quo and reimagine what theater can do, reimagine the power and the importance of storytelling, and that’s the journey that we’re on together. Rather than you coming to Long Wharf Theater, we’re going to go to you.”

“Tenth, Eleventh or Twelfth?”

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“Tenth, eleventh, or twelfth?”

Dr. Ayse Kubra Coskun had practically flown to the first travel agency she saw, elated.

The year was 2001, and she’d just completed a successful visa interview at the American Embassy in Ankara, Turkey. It was a far-off dream realized—after years of hard work, she’d finally start her postdoctoral fellowship in the United States. 

Anytime mid-month would be fine!” Coskun beamed behind the travel agent’s cluttered desk. After a few clicks on his keyboard, the man turned and fixed her with a flat stare. 

“Tenth, eleventh, or twelfth?” he repeated.

After a brief pause, she chose the date in the middle.

“The eleventh—let’s go with the eleventh.”  

Coskun flew to New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.

The flight was eleven hours long. She’d sat in economy for eight of those when the announcements started coming in. Three hours from New York’s JFK airport, the plane turned around. In that calm voice every airline pilot seems to share, Coskun’s pilot announced that the aircraft had been re-routed to Canada.

A few minutes later, Canada turned to Europe—the plane began a tense flight to Germany’s Frankfurt Airport. Three hundred passengers made protests in nervousness, anger, and alarm. The flight crew gave no explanation.

Coskun landed in Frankfurt. The flight crew led three hundred frantic passengers to a large room, awaiting further instruction. There were large televisions mounted on each wall. Coskun looked up at one, then slowly turned round and round to look at them all—they all shouted the collapse of the Twin Towers.

“Passengers—people around me—they started screaming, crying, and literally collapsed on the floor,” Coskun recalled. There were tears in her eyes. She threaded her long fingers in her azure abaya, searching for an anchor. She clutched the table, then, her biceps. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen shock like that—believed in fear and believed in life’s wrongness so much.”

Authorities took Coskun and her fellow passengers to a hotel 100 miles from Frankfurt Airport. After a night of sleepless uncertainty, Coskun gathered with other passengers in the hotel’s lobby. Authorities told the simmering crowd that Al-Qaeda had toppled the towers.

Coskun knew the crowd had heard “Muslims.” She glanced to her side. An older Turkish woman slowly slid her headscarf down, tying it as the base of her neck. Coskun trembled.

As she recalled that day on screen, she began to read in Turkish, which was translated into English through subtitles. She described a feeling of “gurbet”—of being a stranger in a strange land.

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While the sorrow of an unfinished poem streams down 
from my eyes in the morning of the final night,
Footsteps of many new-births are heard in my uneasy heart.
My fears grow into burrs in emptiness

Catching my heart—yet I keep walking
Neither with the fire in red nor with the sorrow hidden in yellow,
I emerge alone…in an unknown land named…gurbet.

Passengers had the option to return home or wait indefinitely for permission to fly to the U.S. Coskun called her mother in tears. Her dreams were shrouded in fear. If 300 people caused an older Turkish woman take of her head scarf, how could young Coskun face a million people in post-9/11 America?

Her mother told her not to worry and to trust in God. If God had protected her at home, he’d do the same wherever she went, her mother declared. Coskun felt a calm wash over her. God was her pillar.

My hope is borrowed from a trembling pigeon’s breast
Its name is…gurbet.

With God by her side, Coskun arrived in Houston, Tex., and began her postdoctoral fellowship. Lab work was a comfort; it made America’s unknowns bloom into warm, familiar colors. Coskun studied HIV/AIDS, microbiology, and gene therapy. Every day, she woke up excited to learn more. At one point, she voluntarily spent 60 to 65 hours per week doing research. Coskun used what little spare time she had to improve her English.

“I was trying to learn all those cultural nuances and how to express myself in a proper way, so I would be understood properly,” she explained. “I think it took me about eight years to understand the word ‘interesting’—it could mean so many different things. But, just like the nuances of words, I began noticing nuances in people’s behaviors. When I realized how the initial fear and shock of 9/11 unfolded in the lives of individuals and communities, I decided that I should do something about that. Houston was a different city.” 

Coskun began to volunteer, working in communities of all kinds. She built interfaith bridges, intercultural bridges, and bridges that spanned across socioeconomic levels. She tried to connect with anyone and everyone. It wasn’t long before she saw friends and acquaintances everywhere she went. Her social web grew wider and wider. She could speak freely in her web, from the incarcerated women she worked with to fellow biological researchers. She built a home “brick by brick.”

Seven years later, she received a job opportunity in New Haven. As she put her car keys into the ignition, ready to build another home, she felt a familiar burning in her chest. it was the feeling of leaving Turkey for America, so long ago. She took a pen and began to write.

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This departure cuts another notch in my heart.
Leaving behind a few pieces of furniture,
Feeling tired and sad, while the mind cage can’t capture memories
My things fit in a couple of suitcases

A few boxes are enough for my books
And… I’m blown away
To an unknown…
Its name is…gurbet.

It’s been twelve years since Coskun settled in New Haven. She’s built a home here—family, friends, love, and laughter—brick by brick. Yet, she awaits the next burning sensation, the next “gurbet.” There may again come a time the Turkish word pierces her heart, and she must leave the comfort of the known for the unknown. But this time, Coskun knows she is ready.

Being constantly awaited by the loved ones,
Yet not being able to return 
Or being able to return, yet not being able to see them all,
Or even though able to see them, not being able to converse with all,

Or being able to converse, yet not quite able to say what
I had been burning to say,
And swallowing the anguish of unspoken words
In pieces…
And that’s how
The loneliness, the strangeness, the longing,
Gain a new meaning of…gurbet.

“Hanging By A Thread”

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Her dress was blood-red. She sat still, body occasionally waving to the beat of her vocals. Her neck was encased in gold rings, her face austere. Her eyes unceasingly bore into the camera’s aperture.

Musician Thabisa Rich chose to tell a story that was not her own. It was the story of her brother. It was the story of her family. It was the story of countless Black and Brown men, spoon-fed every drop of toxic masculinity society can muster.

Rich had been sleeping.

In Port Elizabeth’s Kwazakhele Township, burying and honoring the dead was an arduous and lengthy process. It was 2008, and Rich’s grandfather had recently passed away. The preparations for his funeral were set. Tomorrow, they’d bury him. Rich buried her own body, exhaustion, and sorrow under her bedsheets. She had just been so tired, sleeping early into the afternoon. 

In the film, Rich’s swaying motions became more erratic. She stood, donning a patterned head wrap, a black shirt, and trousers. She crouched and dipped, palms at her face, and stared past the camera’s view. She contorted her fingers and grasped at the air. There was something beseeching in her gaze. She whispered a sentence inaudible to the trees.

Half-awake, Rich had heard voices on that night in 2008. Maybe it was a dream—or a nightmare? She blearily rubbed the sleep from her eyes and sat up. She blinked her eyes a few times and looked around. 

It was her aunt. Was she crying? She ran through the house, hands fisted in her hair and screaming, crying for anyone that would listen. 

Rich heard more commotion. She ran into the next room. When she peered in the doorway, she began to scream herself.

In the film, Rich was on her knees, clothed in white. She screamed, afro freed and cheeks stained with tears. She bellowed towards the sky and dug her fists into the earth—blades of grasp snapped underbody.

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She saw him hanging, she told the audience. She saw her brother hanging, surrounded by crying friends and family. She recalled pushing her way through the small crowd, screaming ever louder. She grabbed his legs and desperately tried to hoist him up. Why was everyone crying? Why weren’t they helping? 

Rich screeched for a knife, she remembered. After what felt like a century, someone cut him down—Who did? Was it a rope? Was it a belt? She didn’t want to remember. His body fell limp to the floor. She knew then that she was helpless, that “she’d never be able to make his heart feel better, not in his life.”

In the film, Rich stood still dressed in white, looking more composed. She began to dance freely, without rhythm or consequence. Colored smoke swirled around her in a spiral. In her chaos, she maintained precise control. She seemed to glance at viewers occasionally, expression unreadable.

“He’ll never know living truthfully to your best and fullest potential…this moment—that moment makes me realize that everybody is hanging from the thread,” she said. “We all are hanging from a thread, an invisible thread that nobody else can see but you. At times, we also don’t see the thread with our own eyes even though it’s around our necks. He may never be able to receive the help he needs for his mental state or his psychological trauma as a child. Every single day I hurt for him. I hurt for me. I hurt for us. And I want you to know that you are worthy of a fair chance in this life and a second chance.”

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“I figured that this is an opportunity bigger than just telling my story—it’s an opportunity to let people know what young men deal within townships and in the hood,” she continued. “Suicide—it is a real thing, and it affects all of us—but also affects our young Black and Brown brothers and sisters. Nobody really talks about that, because death within our community seems to be something that nobody really cares to know about— what causes our deaths? Are they aided by cops? Is it by suicide only? Is it in the system?”

“My brother could never talk to anyone about his issues as a young man developing into a man. We always put so much on men… I realize that now. I wish I could’ve helped more and wish I knew better then. But I cannot wish for things that won’t come true. Telling his story right now, I hope it brings that extensive awareness.’

“If anybody has mental illness, there shouldn’t be a stigma around you, and I’m sorry if you experience that. Please reach out and ask for help. Don’t be ashamed.”

An Unexpected Journey

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Fatema (portrayed by actress Fior Rodriguez).

"Fatema"—portrayed by actress Fior Rodriguez—stood with her family, infant on her hip, exhausted and hungry. She’d been waiting for more than seven hours for news.

They’d arrived in the United States in 2016. When their plane touched down at JFK, the family was elated. It had been a long journey from Jordan. Fatema knew in her heart that the United States promised safety; she traveled with fifteen other stadium families, seeking asylum. 

One by one, each family heard was assigned a state of residence.

“Indiana!” That was their new home—Indiana. 

Fatema waited for an official to pick her and her family up. An hour passed by, and then another, and another. Her son was getting fussy. Her stomach growled.

A man walked by and paused. He fixated on her hijab and walked over, greeting the family in Arabic. He noted their weary faces and lent his ear. Fatema was touched. She explained her family’s confusion as the man listened patiently. That kind samaritan walked over to the authorities and began to translate for her.

What had once been muddled gained sharp, piercing clarity: Fatema and her family were unwanted. The Governor of Indiana—now known as Vice President Mike Pence—had refused to accept immigrants from Syria into his state. What was so wrong with them? Were they not human? Were they nothing more than unwanted goods?

“I felt weak, unsettled, and shocked,” Fatema said. “I did not expect that someone would violate my dignity once I put my foot in America, which is known for its defense of human rights and dignities.”

Then Connecticut’s Gov. Dannel Malloy stepped in. He welcomed Fatema and her family with open arms. It was difficult for her to trust again—how would these people treat her and her family after Indiana’s unfeeling rebuke? Was she running straight from the frying pan and into the fire?

At this point in the video, Rodriguez, carrying the spirit of Fatema, smiled at the screen for the first time.

Malloy, accompanied by seven men, helped set up an apartment for Fatema and her family. He worked with Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Resettlement (IRIS) to help the family adjust to their new home.

“You and your family are safe,” Malloy told them. 

In less than twenty days, Malloy and community members had set up an apartment for the incoming refugees. Fatima’s heart warmed—for the first time in a long time, life tasted sweet. 

“I am lucky to be in Connecticut, surrounded by the kind people I met in New Haven. I am now more happy, confident, and safe.”

Four years in New Haven and the taste grows ever sweeter.

Click here to see Long Wharf’s upcoming events. To see all 10 stories, watch the embedded video above.