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'Cartography' Brings Immigrant Tales to Playhouse Square

The cast of "Cartography" [elmanstudio]

Onstage in Cleveland this week is a new play featuring a group of actors who're all children of immigrants.

Playhouse Square commissioned "Cartography" to stage for local students during a series of matinees.

Victoria Nassif, Vuyo Sotashe, Malaika Uwamahoro, Janice Amaya and Noor Hamdi in "Cartography" [elmanstudio]

The production features performers sharing tales of immigration, coming from countries like El Salvador, Syria, Lebanon, South Africa and Rwanda.  

Noor Hamdi's parents came to the United States from Syria.

Noor Hamdi [Sub/Urban Photograpy]

"When I was a kid I used to tell people my name was 'Scott' and that's because I just wanted to feel like more normal, what I saw was normal. But my mom hated it," Hamdi said.

Fellow actor Janice Amaya can relate. Her family emigrated from El Salvador.

Janice Amaya [Mark Sijka]

"I think it was all a survival technique to assimilate, to fit in, to be embarrassed of the language or to not show that I also spoke Spanish or that I was other, to really try to be like everybody else," Amaya said.

Through sharing their stories on stage, company members made a stronger connection to their family histories.

"What I learned with 'Cartography' is that I'm so proud of the movement of my family. Speaking to young people in the audience, people who've recently arrived, going to schools that have recently-arrived young folks. It's so inspiring and fills me with so much joy," Amaya said.

The cast of "Cartography" [elmanstudio]

"Cartography" uses maps to illustrate the migration of families from around the world.

"We create this conversation to talk about maps and what is a map? So a map could be a Google map, it could be miles, it could be land traversed. A map could also be dreaming, it could be memories.To start this dialogue with the students is super special because they are thinking of maps in these ways," Amaya said.

The actors also led workshops at Cleveland's John Marshall High School with students whose families recently immigrated to Cleveland.

Noor Hamdi working with students at John Marshall High School [Playhouse Square]

"What I saw was a common ground between all of them is they all have such big dreams. They all want to be doctors or lawyers or something where they really feel they can help either their families or communities," Hamdi said.

"A lot of times with young people we dismiss them or don't give them space and don't value their thinking but these kids have been through so much. It's all in them," Amaya said. "They just completely showed up with their dreams."

Janice Amaya working with students at John Marshall High School [Playhouse Square]

Hamdi spoke with some of the students about the common misconception of an immigrant's accent.

"There were three girls that were there and they all said, 'yeah actually we've all been made fun of our accents.' But they all said that they didn't feel ashamed about that.  The one girl, she's from Tanzania, she said that, 'my accent carries with me my culture and my people,'" Hamdi said.

The cast of "Cartography" [elman studio]

The Playhouse Square performances of "Cartography" feature post-show talk backs where the actors speak with the students in the audience.

"I had someone come up to me and say, 'I wish my family had come from more countries.' I remember feeling the opposite, 'I wish I were born here, I wish my entire family only knew the U.S.' Now I'm realizing the pride in the movement and the power in it, and that it's so central to the human story," Amaya said.

"That's what "Cartography" is trying to show that we're all people. And, yeah, maybe we come from different places, but we are, at the end of the day, just people who have lives that we want to live. And who can argue with that?" Hamdi said.

In addition to performing student matinees, the actors stage a public performance of "Cartography" Thursday at 7 p.m. at Playhouse Square's Ohio Theater.






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Dave DeOreo is coordinating producer for Ideastream Public Media’s arts and culture team.