Ongoing violent conflicts in Syria and around the world put refugees on the front page with alarming frequency, and this weekend, Spanish language theater company Teatro Tercera Llamada (TTL) is putting that issue on stage with their latest production, “Bashir Lazhar.”
It’s the story of the title character, an educator who is also an immigrant and a refugee. When a crisis in a school creates a sudden vacancy no one wants to fill, Lazhar takes the position. He then struggles to represent the students, when the administration would rather just keep any problems in their school quiet.
It’s hot-button stuff, but at the center of the play is the experience and emotion of one man; “Lazhar” is a one-person show. All the action is filtered through Lazhar’s perception, and the play jumps back and forth between his present and his past.
Insider spoke with director Kathi E.B. Ellis and TTL producer and co-founder Haydee Canovas about the play and the steps the company is taking to grow and reach new audiences.
TTL is approaching its fifth year as a company, and Canovas’ plans to expand include working with new directors and collaborators. She first met Ellis through work at Looking for Lilith Theatre Co. Ellis’ involvement came from a conversation at a party.
“We were at a New Year’s Eve party, and I spent the whole night talking with Kathi about theater, and Kathi said, ‘When am I going be able to direct one of Teatro Tercera Llamada’s plays?’” said Canovas. She was quick to take Ellis up on the offer.
Ellis recalled: “As you may have learned about Haydee, when you say something, her follow-up is exceptionally sharp.”
The script, by Évelyne de la Chenelière, was originally French and written about an Algerian immigrant moving to Canada. The play was translated to Spanish, but the particulars of the story weren’t changed, as they speak to a wide range of human experience.
According to Ellis, “it has resonances for anyone who has chosen to leave their home country and journey to a new country, whether it’s as an immigrant or striving to find refugee status.”
Adding another wrinkle to the story is the question of Bashir’s ethnicity.
“There is the overlay of, is he an ‘Arab’? As an ‘Arab,’ is he Muslim? And how does that influence the way we respond,” said Ellis. The rhetoric and media attention around Muslims or others of Arabic descent has only gotten hotter throughout the election season, and recent violent attacks often have brought those issues to the fore.
While a story of an Algerian refugee may seem an odd pick for a Spanish language theater company in Kentucky, it reflects an ongoing national conversation about many kinds of immigrants, including those from Mexico, who have been a talking point of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
The commonality of the experiences of varied refugees and immigrants points to an important truth Canovas must grapple with as she steers TTL through its next stage of growth. There is no single country of origin for Louisville’s Spanish-speaking community. “We’re from all over,” said Canovas. “(We’re) Spanish, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, Argentinian, Columbian, Ecuadorean, Peruvian, Panamanian, Honduran, Guatemalan, Bolivian — all the countries are represented here in Louisville, Ky.”
Canovas said many people don’t realize how large the Spanish-speaking community in Louisville is. “If you’re not paying attention, you are missing out on a completely beautiful, colorful culture and language.”
Part of TTL’s mission is serving that community, but they also want to reach out to the rest of the city. And one of the ways they are broadening their reach is to expand their roster of directors to include people like Ellis, for whom Spanish is a second language.
“I have some Spanish, I am by no means fluent,” said Ellis. “I am much better at listening and reading than I am at speaking.”
TTL also is reaching out by transcending language. They have a mime-focused company, Las Pantomimas, who have a performance coming up in the fall. And TTL will perform before Kentucky Shakespeare’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” on Thursday, July 7, presenting a Spanish-language parody of the famous tragedy. Canovas believes it’s the first time a Spanish language version has served as pre-show entertainment for Kentucky Shakespeare.
As is their custom, both “Bashir Lahzar” and the performance at Kentucky Shakespeare will be accompanied by supra-titles — a nice light-up screen featuring full English translation.
“I hope this play is accessible to people regardless of what their first, second or third language is,” said Ellis.