Refuge *Malja* ملجأ A Play by Teaching Artist Bess Welden

By Sarah Warner

photo by Lauren Kennedy — Portland Stage

On Tuesday Oct. 30, Colby Theater & Dance Teaching Artist Bess Welden’s play Refuge *Malja* ملجأ is premiering at the Portland Stage. Welden has been working on this play, a story of motherhood, refuge, memory and much more, since 2015.

“Written in English and Arabic, [Refuge *Malja* ملجأ] is a poetic, decade-spanning drama that explores how we each define and find our own malja (refuge),” Welden said in an email to the Echo. “Jamie Winter, a Jewish-American war photographer, calls her old friend, Ibrahim Malouf, a Palestinian radio reporter in the middle of the night. She reluctantly reveals that she’s been assisting a young refugee, Waleed, who stepped in front of her camera on the beach on Lesvos, Greece where she’s covering the migrant crisis. She tries to explain to Ibrahim, and figure out for herself, why she is so drawn to the boy.”

According to Welden, inspiration for the story came to her in the fall of 2015, when her sister-in-law, a photojournalist, was covering the migrant crisis in Lesvos, Greece. Many of the photos she took were of the objects migrants left behind on the beaches as they continued their journey into Europe — most of which were shoes.

“My immediate response was that every one of these shoes represents an individual human being with a story — and a lot of the shoes had obviously belonged to kids,” Welden said in an interview for Portland Stage Company. “I started wondering about the experiences of children migrating on their own. Parallel to that, I was imagining what it’s like to be a first responder in these sorts of situations. How do they put up professional barriers, so that they don’t get emotionally involved with every single person you’re meeting? Which led me to ask: What happens if a connection does penetrate those walls? What would the consequences be?”

These questions that began what would be a three year journey to get Refuge *Malja* ملجأ on the stage.

Welden first wrote a short play through the Maine Playwrights Festival. Once she decided to write a full length script she began working with Portland Stage to bring it to life, leading to its debut this past week.

“It’s about as exciting and satisfying an opportunity any playwright could hope for,” Welden told the Echo of her play’s premiere at Portland Stage. “I’ve had a relationship with the theater for nearly 20 years as a performer, writer and educator. This production is my playwriting mainstage debut. It’s especially gratifying to have this premiere happen in my home community and in the state’s most prestigious theater.”

There have been some challenges along the way. Because the play is written in both English and Arabic, Welden had to find a translator, a director and actors who all speak both languages. Despite the difficulty of this endeavor, Welden claims that it was a worthwhile one.

“I don’t speak or read Arabic, but I knew two characters in the story needed to,” she explained. “At the same time, solving these particular creative challenges has been very rewarding. It’s meant that I’ve developed a close collaborative relationship with Ali Al-Mshakeel, a new Mainer originally from Iraq, who’s served not just as a translator but also as a cultural broker and community connector. It’s also meant that Portland Stage has made a commitment and investment in appropriate casting and leadership for the production.”

Working with the diverse group of actors cast by Portland Stage is another thing Welden says has been very rewarding. The role of Waleed is shared between three boys from Portland, all of them immigrants themselves from Iraq or Sudan. The director, Kareem Fahmy, who is based in New York City, is Canadian-born of Egyptian descent, while the actor playing Ibrahim is from Chicago. For Welden, “…meeting, working with and learning from these skilled professionals and these young people who are performing for the first time has made this project so rich on so many levels.”

While Welden pursues her own goals as a playwright, she wants to encourage Colby students to explore theater and performance as well. She offered up a few words of wisdom for anyone interested in writing, directing or performing in plays.

“Start now. Start experimenting and exploring your own voice and the kinds of stories that mean something to you. If you want to write, just start writing, even if it’s a few lines of dialogue or ideas for characters. If you want to act, audition for everything, or if you aren’t finding opportunities, gather friends and read plays out loud and talk about them. If you want to be a theater artist of any kind, read and see as many plays as you can. Try a class or two in the Theater & Dance Department and learn practical techniques and skills that will ground you.”

Welden encouraged Colby students to email her at lweinbla@colby.edu if they have any questions. She also expressed her willingness to sit down for some coffee and chat about Refuge * Malja* ملجأ or about students’ own goals in the world of theater and performance.