Life and Love at The Refugee Hotel

The Teersi Duniya Theatre’s production of The Refugee Hotel follows a family of Chilean refugees through their first days in Montreal after fleeing the political violence that ravaged South America in the 1970s. The family, comprised of two former political prisoners and their two young children, is put up in a hotel by a social agency until jobs and a home can be found for them. The relationships they form with the other refugees in the hotel informally enlarge this typically nuclear family.

As we are bombarded with media coverage, it almost feels redundant to say we are facing the largest refugee crisis since the end of World War II. What performances like The Refugee Hotel do is help the audience learn (or re-learn) empathy for the subjects of the story, both on stage and in real life.

According to the UNHCR, in 2015 there were 65.3 million displaced people worldwide, 21.3 million refugees, and 10 million stateless people. Unsurprisingly, the majority are from Syria. Yet despite how it seems, given that the media has been stressing the massive influx of potentially dangerous refugees into the West, the Americas (North and South) host only 12% of all refugees and Europe hosts only a meagre 6%. Suddenly, the 33,723 resettled in Canada refugees since Trudeau took office seems miniscule.

One of the greatest merits of The Refugee Hotel, therefore, is that it clears misconceptions about the equivocal ‘refugee.’ We tend to view the influx of newcomers in a homogenous way, in a way that obscures any differences within the group. But in The Refugee Hotel, the audience learns to see the refugees as human as the show portrays a variety of coping mechanisms, experiences, and even internal forms of discrimination among the refugees themselves. For instance, a very poignant moment is when Christina, an indigenous Mapuche woman, points out that even before the political turmoil, she and her people were struggling. Her experience translates almost perfectly to the case of many refugees who came to Canada last year. In Toronto, the majority of the first wave of newcomers to arrive were privately-sponsored Christian Armenian-Syrians. We should never trivialize their suffering, but among the 65.3 million displaced people they can reasonably be deemed among the ‘lucky ones.’ Considering the rampant Islamophobia in the West, you can’t help but wonder if their Christianity helped them jump Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s hurdles a little faster. Christina reminds us that for many, the struggle did not begin with the political crisis, and it does not end with resettlement. She reminds us to fight the urge to generalize.

We got in touch with Shanti Gonzales, the fourth-year McGill student in Honours Theatre Studies who plays the role of Christina, to talk to her about her experience in the production.

Bull & Bear: It’s easy to get stuck in the McGill bubble, and even more so in the McGill theatre bubble, since we are lucky to have so many operating theatre companies on campus. How did you get off campus and pursue the role?

Shanti Gonzales: The community is small and buzzing, so I just “kept my eyes and ears open” (quote from the play, totally lame)! I intend to keep acting and directing, so I’m always sniffing around for opportunities to work, and honestly, what I’ve found is that when it rains, it pours. That is, when there are jobs to be found, they will be plentiful, and juggling will be crucial. And when there aren’t, there are none, and that’s okay too. I was lucky enough to have lined up two back-to-back gigs (I acted in We Are One/Brave New Production’s Bright Half Life this August before The Refugee Hotel started), and that helped me make connections that continue to point me in the direction of more excellent projects for the future.

B&B: How did you balance your studies and extra-curricular activities with rehearsals?

SG: I’m not going to say it was easy! In addition to being enrolled full time at McGill, I collaborated on another production (An Iliad produced by Chocolate Moose Theatre, check it out!), teach music classes to babies three mornings a week, and am the executive director of Tuesday Night Cafe (TNC) Theatre. You could say I keep myself busy! Luckily, all the projects I’m involved in, academic and artistic, are projects that I’m passionate about, and thus doing the work wasn’t the hard part. Staying sane was the real challenge. As such, I’ve been very strict with myself about being kind to myself. I take bubble baths, eat real-people food (rage against Mr. Noodles!), and allow myself to be an antisocial squirrel and stay in when I could go out. Each and every day I strive to remind myself that even though all the things I do feel so all-consuming, what matters most is self care.

B&B: What kind of research did you do to prepare for this role?

SG: All sorts. Being a McGill nerd, I started with a very academic historical survey in order to understand the history of Chile’s coup d’etat and the circumstances surrounding it, and from there I got more specific with book research for my character; for example, she is an Indigenous woman, Mapuche, so I did a lot of research on Mapuche culture, specifically textiles, astrology, and mythology. What emerged from this academic inquiry was a generalized understanding of just how painful Chile’s recent history is. And not only that it’s painful and recent, but also that it’s a history that my American childhood textbooks glossed over, that they deemed irrelevant. The most important part of the research that I undertook, alone and with my cast, was an embodied exploration of human pain and memory, which involved body work and different acting exercises with the purpose of feeling out my own guts, but also talking to actual people who survived the Chilean coup d‘etat and even survivors of the concentration camps that were running during that time. It was an emotionally intense process, but so crucial. And I am proud to shoulder some of this emotional burden in order to share a story that is so much bigger than any one of us, on or offstage.

B&B: How have you connected with the story of The Refugee Hotel? What is the most important thing you’re going to take away from the show?

SG: Oh man. I see my own story deeply stitched into the fabric of this play. I’m Indian/Mexican, and first generation on my Indian mother’s side. As such, I’ve seen firsthand how terrifying acclimating to a new culture can be. And my mom chose to move to the States. So to expand that to the plight of political refugees, to imagine being ripped out of your daily life, friends and family dead, and forced to start over in an alien city — that hit me deep. And the Mexican side gave me an incredible access point for this story of Latinidad. Latin America has suffered from lots of political and social unrest for hundreds of years, and that has been culturally internalised in many ways. It was incredible to be able to invoke my grandmother’s stories, her personality, her warmth in the portrayal of this character and story. I feel her in this piece, and thus I feel me, and from there I can begin to feel Christina.

B&B: What are your thoughts about the current refugee crisis and how it is being handled by the US and Canada? Did your experience in The Refugee Hotel affect your opinion?

SG: I am very proud that Canada has begun the process of welcoming in refugees. I think what’s important to remember in a discussion of dis- and re-location is how important land is to our conceptualisation of culture and identity. In other words, it is important to remember that this is a human problem. It’s not a numbers game, it’s not about us/them, it’s about the bigger Us. And through my work on The Refugee Hotel, I hope that I can hold up a tiny little mirror to just one person in the audience — someone who might be able to realise, “hey, wait, despite the fact that I’ve lived a very comfortable and privileged life, I see myself in this character, and someone like her deserves to be fought for in the way that I’d want people to fight for me.” In my case, the way I’m fighting for these people is through my art. And hopefully more brothers and sisters will take up arms (in whatever form) and fight alongside me. 

***End of interview***

Theatre and art like The Refugee Hotel make it easier to see strangers from far-off continents as human, especially when you’ve spent two hours building a relationship with them from your seat in the audience. When their plight, relationships, and character arcs intrigue you, the term ‘refugee’ doesn’t seem to suffice anymore—it feels impersonal and inappropriate for the characters you’ve come to know so well. That’s not to say that ‘refugee’ is a bad word, but it’s a political designation, not a humanist one.


The Refugee Hotel runs until November 13 at The Segal Centre for the Performing Arts (5170 Chemin de la Côte-Sainte-Catherine). Presented in English with Spanish subtitles. Tickets are $18-$26.


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