Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Door County Art Exhibition, Performances Tell Sagas of Many Refugees

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A rare project is in the works in our area that involves the arts and refugees.

Miller Art Museum and Third Avenue Playhouse are cooperating in two ventures driven by one woman.

Multiple elements come together this week under the guidance of Habibah Sheikh, a well-traveled creative person who grew up in the Detroit area and lived abroad for 30 years before returning… with stories to tell.

Similar ventures of Sheikh have been presented at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Detroit and Central Michigan University.

What is happening in Sturgeon Bay expands the scale.

Third Avenue Playhouse will host a three-part theatrical work titled “Right to Live” in three performances next weekend. A film also is part of activities at the playhouse.

Miller Art Museum will host the exhibition “Mitli, Mitlak (Like You, Like Me)” opening March 2 and running for six weeks.

“It was a unique opportunity to bring in a guest artist with such a worthwhile project,” said Robert Boles, co-artistic director of the professional Third Avenue Playhouse. “It is just the kind of different and unique experience we love to offer our audiences.”

The museum approached the playhouse with the idea of collaborating, Boles said.

“Our mission statement is ‘to entertain and educate by provoking thought, laughter and tears.’ This project reflects everything in that statement. Plus, it directly involves members of the community of all ages in its creation.”

The exhibition at Miller Art Museum is curated by Sheikh.

“We hope that visitors to the museum are excited about these wonderful, vibrant pieces, and that people learn more about global interchange and refugee stories directly from the artists who have been affected by these phenomena,” said Elizabeth Shoshany Anderson, the museum’s curator of exhibitions and collections.

Sheikh has been in the area in recent months, holding workshops for the theatrical piece and organizing the many facets of the project.

She spoke of the catalyst for the play.

“When younger, I had said that I wanted to write a play about Lebanon. At the time, this seemed like an extremely ambitious project, being so young, and with Lebanon coming out of war.

“In that same year that civil war ended in Lebanon, I had been living in Berlin, Germany. This very same year Communism ended, and then the Lebanese civil war ended. I found myself traveling between Berlin and Beirut, two divided cities, under reconstruction and under unification process.

“Living between Berlin and Beirut, in the early ’90s is a time period that has influenced my work more than other influences.

“As time passed and other wars in the Gulf began as well as the Syrian war – and the Palestinian people were still living behind barbed wire in an occupied zone, or in refugee camps during 50 years in other countries – the initial project about Lebanon, had opened to include all these parties and what they are living.

“So the catalyst really was having lived in a post-war context and era.

“After that, I went to Spain for 10 years. And all that was beyond words. From having lived in the post war, including the different intensities and energies I had taken in from people who had experienced torture and unimaginable suffering, was beyond words.

“It was Flamenco music, and even the basic level dance when I arrived there, giving me visions of each scene of the play.

“I wrote each scene down as it appeared in my mind’s eye, without changing anything. Later I wrote the dialogue.”

Performances of “Right to Live” are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 1 and 2, and 1 p.m. Sunday, March 3, at Third Avenue Playhouse, 239 N. Third Ave., in downtown Sturgeon Bay. Admission is by donation.

The work is a music-and-stage production telling stories of struggle and joy, highlighting the richness of culture from the Arab world.

Performing along with Sheikh are these community members: Annabelle Clark, Edward DiMaio, Alex Floyd, Donna Johnson, Rylee Johnson, Susan Kennedy, Kole Mallien, Andria Nikoupolis-Welkiky, Carol Jensen-Olson, Dan Sallien and Erin Tauscher.

Sheikh worked with the group to create “Right to Live” as devised theater.

Explaining the term, Boles said, “Devised theater is a theater piece created and performed by a particular group of people. Usually, it is created around a theme or an event or any number of ideas that serve as a jumping off point for the people involved.  Everyone in the group has a part in creating the piece. 

“In this case, Ms. Shiekh has collected a number of personal narratives from refugee populations around the world. From those narratives and with her guidance, the group has been working on this unique theater piece. She will be doing this in several other venues around the country, and in each case, the result will be completely different.   

“While we haven’t done a devised piece here at Third Avenue Playhouse before, we have presented devised pieces from other groups such as ‘The Laramie Project’ and ‘columbinus’.” 

As part of the process, Sheikh and the cast have been in communication with refugees whose stories are being re-enacted via Skype from Iraq, Syria, Palestine and other locations.

Sheikh said “Right to Live” consists of three parts.

“The first one is like life during wartime,” she said. “It examines how poverty and gender issues come together in a situation of the civil war and the person is forced to stay in the situation they are in because they have absolutely nowhere to go.

“The second part is the hope and the dreams that are keeping the people living as they resist with their dreams because if they realize their dreams then they won’t just be a victim of circumstance. They only have one life to live, and they want to be a person who can choose to be the masters of their own destiny. After 17 years of war, the theater is opening again, and the actors are preparing for the theater piece that’s going to open after 17 years of war. So they are having a celebration to commemorate this.

 “And then from this is a high party scene, the same actors will transform – metamorphosize – from this high party scene of end of war to the Kurdish refugees who are in absolutely devastating situations. So it’s going from one extreme to the other.”

More is taking place at Third Avenue Playhouse.

On display will be a photo essay of refugees primarily from Central America by Dennis Connolly of Sturgeon Bay.

The Sunday performance of “Right to Live” will be followed by the screening of a documentary film, “Citizen Zenos,” directed by Lucas Paleocrassas, a Greek visual artist, cinematographer and film director.

According to a press release, the film with origins in the Greek financial crisis includes extensive interviews that were conducted about the direct impact of the refugee crisis upon inhabitants and implicated parties. These include incoming refugees, politicians, United Nations representatives, volunteers, medical professionals, teachers and fishermen who were directly impacted by the crisis.

The film “hints of warning, about the possible dangers that people are thrust into, and the human responsibilities in the face of this crisis, whose consequences will take generations rectify.”

The exhibition “Mitli, Mitlak (Like You, Like Me)” opens Saturday, March 2, at the Miller Art Museum. A reception will be held from 3 to 4:30 p.m. The museum is located within the Door County Library at 107 S. 4th Ave., Sturgeon Bay. Admission is free, and the facility is fully accessible.

According to a press release: The exhibition features the work of visual artists from the Middle East, North Africa and the Arabic diaspora. The contemporary works include painting, photography and drawing, all working in a narrative frame to tell stories of refuge, displacement, war and contemporary visual culture.

The exhibition’s title alludes to the idea that people are more alike than different, and that we are all human.

Exhibiting artists include Hani Alqam (Jordan), Thameur Mejri (Tunesia), Sinan Hussein (Iraq), Wael Darweish (Egypt), Ahmen Nagy (Egypt), Klaudja Sulaj (Albania), Lucas Paleocrassas (Greece), Abbas Yousif (Bahrain), Basel Uraiqat (Jordan), Mohammed Al Hawajri (Palestine), May Murad (Palestine), Haitham Khatib (Syria) and Hassan Meer (Oman).

The exhibition closes April 15.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My latest book, “I Fell Out of a Tree in Fresno (and other writing adventures),” is available in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum and Bosse’s.

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