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Indoor Theater Returns To Pittsburgh With Stories Of Immigrants And Refugees

This week, indoor theater returns to Pittsburgh after an 18-month pandemic hiatus. And it’s with a new play that highlights the stories of immigrants and refugees in the city, past and present — and even stars a few of those recent newcomers.

“The Rivers Don’t Know” was commissioned by City Theatre, and developed over the past couple of years by playwright James McManus and director Michael John Garcés, who gathered stories from multiple immigrant communities. The show gets nine free performances at Point University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse, Downtown — the first full-scale indoor production by a Pittsburgh troupe since March 2020, though subject to numerous COVID-19 safety protocols for audiences, including proof of vaccination.

The novelty of in-person theater work during a pandemic was evident even in rehearsal, said Garcés. “People have been really joyous about being in the room together,” he said.

“The Rivers” primarily tells two stories, one about an immigrant Polish steel-mill family in the 1940s, the other about Somali-Bantu refugees living here today. Their stories eventually intersect, said Garcés. “You do see how those immigrant communities come together and start to become Americans,” he said.

The cast of 14 includes a “chorus” of five local students learning English as a second language, who interact with the audience, he said.

To create the show, City Theatre paired Garcés, artistic director of Los Angeles’s Cornerstone Theater Company with veteran playwright McManus, a Pittsburgh native. Cornerstone specializes in community-engagement theater and frequently works with nonprofessional actors. Other partners in the show include ARYSE, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that supports immigrant youths with literacy and arts programs.

One of the people they interviewed was Aweys Mwaliya, a Somali-Bantu refugee who fled Somalia’s civil war in 2004. After some years in Salt Lake City, he joined Pittsburgh’s sizable Somali-Bantu community a decade ago and now heads the Somali-Bantu Community Association of Pittsburgh. And Mwaliya didn’t just provide stories for the play. Onstage, he’ll portray “Pops,” a Somali-Bantu patriarch closely modeled on himself, he said. It’s his first acting role.

“It’s actually a part of our history. I’m a part of this,” he said. “I don’t just see myself as Pops, but I see myself as real playing myself.”

“I am a dad who is trying to focus on community while I struggle with my family at home,” he added before rehearsal one night at City Theatre's South Side space. “I lost my wife, while on the other hand I am struggling with my daughter, [and] on the other hand I am struggling with a community that is new to the States.”

Playing Pops’ 16-year-old daughter, Khadija, is Danielle Obisie-Orlu, who was born in Washington, D.C., to Nigerian parents. Obisie-Orlu said she lived most of her life in South Africa before enrolling at the University of Pittsburgh, where she is now a junior studying international relations, French, and sociology.

“I’m really passionate about topics related to belonging and xenophobia, and really understanding how we exist together in a space,” she said.

Of Khadija, she said, “She is very sure of who she is. She knows what she brings to the table. She knows how to take up her space. And I think she is exploring different sides of herself where she lets herself be vulnerable, be open, and also really just to stand in the power of her voice, and that what she says means something, and that she can take pride in that.”

The cast also includes Serap Uzunoglu, as Serap; Khara Timsina, as Khada; Max Pavel, as Debo; Shravani Charylu, as Advika; Michael Shahen, as Stash; Farooq Al-Said, as Ezzy; and Jane Tinker, as Zofia. The chorus consists of Namrata Tewari, Daniela Canche Vela, Grace Shim, Sahib Alrammahi, and Laura Coyt Zavala.

In an era when immigration, and the status of refugees, remains a hotly debated issue, Mwayila said he hopes audiences will learn something from “The Rivers Don’t Know.”

“They will see the struggle that people who come here [face], when it comes to cultural competency, the children, between the parents, and also how we assimilate ourself into the American way of life, and the struggle that comes with that.”

The show will be performed on the Playhouse’s Highmark Stage, with various bows to COVID-19 safety. According to City Theatre, seating capacity will be reduced by 70 percent or more for all performances. Both proof of vaccination and masking will be required of all patrons.

Admission is free, but reservations are required. More information is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: