Portland playwright Bess Welden on creating a show with help from her city’s immigrant community.Bess Welden’s new work tells the story of a Jewish-American photojournalist and a refugee boy she befriends in Greece. After an emergency phone call from home, she has to choose between leaving and staying to help him. The title — Refuge * Malja * ملجأ — repeats the same word in English, phonetic Arabic, and Arabic script, a multilingual mantra that drives home a question at the heart of the play: amid a massive humanitarian crisis, how does one person help another find safety?
What inspired this play?
My sister-in-law is a freelance international journalist. In the fall of 2015, she photographed refugee shoes left behind on a beach on the Greek island of Lesvos. Many belonged to children, which led me to imagine the character Waleed, a boy making the perilous journey on his own. A girl named Zahra Salim read the role last year during development. She and her mother are refugees who’d arrived from Iraq, via Egypt, less than a year before we met. In the mainstage production, three students from Portland middle schools — two from Iraq, one from South Sudan — will share the role.
Dialogue is in English and Arabic. Why?
I wanted to explore how people who don’t speak the same language connect in a shared experience. I wrote the play in English then collaborated with Mohammed Albehadli, an Iraqi immigrant who’d recently graduated from Portland High School, for the translation. He’s now at Trinity College in Connecticut. Ali Al Mshakheel, who was a journalist for Western news outlets in Iraq until he fled five years ago and settled in Portland, translated for the full-length version. He’s also serving as a cultural adviser for the script and to the actors.
What do you want viewers in Maine to take away?
I hope it reminds people of their own family’s migration stories and inspires them to see new Mainers as individuals who have a lot to offer. I also hope audiences leave thinking about what home really means and the way all humans seek the stability and comfort of a place of refuge.