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Howard Sherman: Trump’s travel ban not only bars entry to refugees but to those telling their stories

Nassim Soleimanpour. Photo: Nima Soleimanpour Nassim Soleimanpour. Photo: Nima Soleimanpour
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The note inserted into the programme for the US premiere of Nassim could not be more understated. It begins: “Nassim Soleimanpour was granted a visa allowing him to enter the United States as a working artist and arrived in NYC on the night of December 4. His first performance was Wednesday, December 5, 2018.”

Like his previous play, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, Nassim calls upon an actor to perform in the show with no foreknowledge of what’s to come, following a script they see for the first time as they take the stage alone. Rabbit was written at a time when Soleimanpour could not leave his native Iran, sending the play out to producers around the world to let the piece speak for him.

But distinct from the solo Rabbit, Nassim requires the active participation of the author, with some intricately timed and expressive stagecraft, despite having been performed in multiple countries around the world since the current production debuted at the Bush Theatre in 2017. But for its US run, the author had only 24 hours to acclimatise – presumably he was arriving from Berlin, which the show reveals is now where he lives – as well as to the new venue and its specific physical and technical details.

Printed in the programme itself is a note explaining that two weeks before the first performance, Soleimanpour, while having performed the play in countries in Europe, South America, and Asia, had not yet been granted his US visa. It does not say what might have happened to the production had Soleimanpour been excluded.

The root of the problem was the travel ban instituted by the Trump administration, with a blanket proscription against certain countries, Iran among them. It worked out for the Nassim team at the last minute, but as the programme note, the insert and the special thanks section explain, the effort was considerable.

Nassim is not the only show in New York that has had to run this gauntlet. As the New York Times revealed in an article on December 2, the British production of The Jungle, which began performances on December 4 at St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, experienced the same uncertainty. Three of the actors in the play – two Iranian and one Syrian – only secured visas at the last minute.

The Times article on The Jungle notes: “The show’s creative team and producers were reluctant to move the play without all the cast members, saying their life experiences – several had lived in the Calais refugee camp being depicted – gave the show its authenticity.” An Iranian-born US actor, Arian Moayed, was at the ready to take on at least one of the roles if necessary, though the visa situation was resolved at the 11th hour.

The Jungle review at Young Vic, London – ‘vital, vibrant and extraordinarily moving’

As the US has watched immigrants seeking asylum, some with infant children, being violently turned back at the Mexico-US border only weeks ago, the travails of a few artistic projects may seem small to the world at large. But within the artistic community, they bring home the reality of a country that is ever more obstructive to those who might wish to take refuge here, or even visit with messages of our shared humanity.

The Jungle is the more overtly political of the two works, as it focuses on the citizens of the migrant camp that gives the play its title, and their efforts to lead better, safer lives. Nassim is far gentler, but is still threaded through with lessons about the barriers of language and subtle commentary about the crossing of borders, especially when we see the playwright’s actual Iranian passport, stamped with visas from his travels and base in Berlin.

The New York Times article on The Jungle cites other artistic disciplines that have struggled with the travel ban and its effects, including a dance company in Cincinnati and a touring orchestra that includes musicians from Syria and Iran. But these multiple cases raise the inevitable question: are artistic visits being scuttled or abandoned because they fear that the travel ban will throw their efforts into disarray? Is the potential cost of fighting for visas for visiting artists simply beyond the capacity of some prospective hosts?

The Jungle marshalled a cadre of celebrities and politicians to its cause; Nassim appears to have succeeded without quite as famous a roster of support. But within the creative community, we see in microcosm admittedly less fraught examples of the struggles writ large in headlines and, no doubt, countless others than those that fail to garner media attention.

If the US is to return to its status as a home for people of all nations seeking better lives, certainly its edicts and its laws must be restored to where they were before the current administration took over in January 2017. Part of that process surely includes the arts community fighting for the presence of its practitioners from every single nation on our shores and in our theatres. Fighting for them to tell their stories, and to galvanise those who see and hear them in vocal, active support of a welcoming, embracing America once again.

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