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Pittsburgh troupe's dance-theater work places the refugee crisis here and now

In March 2020, just as the coronavirus shutdown was hitting, CorningWorks was among the first arts groups in Pittsburgh to close down a production in rehearsal. “The Tipping Point,” Beth Corning’s dance-theater work about refugees in a world in crisis, would have to wait.

Almost two years later, its time has come. But a show initially intended as a provocative warning might now be even more relevant. “The Tipping Point” runs Jan. 19-30 at 25 Carrick, a performance space in Carrick.

The show, in part, puts audience members in the role of refugees fleeing their homes after some unspecified disaster, whether natural or man-made. The setting is Pittsburgh, and the time is today. Aid workers played by some of the show’s cast of 13 try to help, but the process is necessarily confusing and fearful. Other portions of “Tipping Point” use music, movement, and dialogue to express the powerful emotions that emerge from such experiences.

But, as Corning put it, “This is not really a show about resettled refugees coming to this country. It is really about us.”

Corning is a veteran artist based in Pittsburgh since 2003. The roots of “Tipping Point” date to the 2016 presidential election, she said, many of whose issues revolved around immigration.

“I felt very strongly that I could not just sit and be an armchair liberal when the America that I knew, doors were being closed,” she said. “I have to represent a different America.”

Through the nonprofit group Jewish Family Services, she was connected to an extended family of Syrian Kurds recently relocated to Pittsburgh. The past decade’s mass exodus of some 13 million Syrians has been identified by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees as this century’s biggest refugee crisis.

Corning helped the family navigate life in Pittsburgh. While she got to know them, a question formed in her mind. “I kept thinking, ‘Well, when did you leave?’ What was that one thing, I need to know one thing that’s gonna allow me to say, ‘This is that one thing, we’re gonna leave now, or this is the tipping point.’”

The ultimate answer is that there was no single thing; as a line spoken by an actor in the show goes, “It started slowly.”

Corning incorporated the family’s experience into “Tipping Point”; in fact, several members of the family (who asked that their surname not be publicized) appear in the show.

“Beth is a sister, she is a partner, and she is part of our family now,” said Hanifa, a mother of four, two of whom live in the U.S. She spoke through a translator at a rehearsal at 25 Carrick in March 2020.

Family members said their memories of fleeing home were painful, but they were glad Corning had created the show. “It’s tragedy but it’s a good plain to cross to show others what we have been through, what we went through,” said Hanan, a father of four.

Corning also worked on the show with Doctors Without Borders, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization. One of her reference points was “Forced from Home,” the group’s nationally touring immersive exhibit about the refugee experience. The installation occupied Pittsburgh’s Schenley Plaza in October 2016. Corning didn’t see it herself, but based on documentation, she adapted some of its content for the stage. Doctors Without Borders, which offers medical care to refugee communities around the world, also provided other technical assistance to the production.

“Right now there are 82 million forcibly displaced people around the world. And that is more than at any time in modern history,” said Nick Bayer, a Doctors Without Borders spokesperson who worked closely with Corning on the project. “It can be difficult sometimes to really understand what it feels like to be forced to flee and leave everything behind at a moment’s notice. So it becomes critical that we share the stories of these individuals.”

“Tipping Point” is basically the same show that was postponed in March 2020, with some updated references to current events and a few new COVID-safety precautions (most of them about keeping audience members distant from each other.) Audiences must wear face masks and show proof of vaccination.

The show is co-directed by Gab Cody, with set design by Stephanie Mayer-Staley, lighting by Iain Court, and projections by Joe Spinogatti.

Corning gratefully notes that most of her original cast from the planned 2020 production returned for the reboot. One is local movement artist Pearlann Porter.

“I think this work is even oddly enough more relevant than it was before,” she said on the company’s third day of rehearsal in the new year. “There’s a sense of confusion and panic and impermanence that a lot of us might not have felt [previously], and I think a lot of us have felt that on some capacity. … Everyone’s gone through a collective trauma and everyone is just feeling the effects of loss and grief. And that longing for connection. The show was about that before, but now we’re all refugees of our own life in a way.”

The time since has seen not only repeated surges of the pandemics, but also numerous police killings of unarmed Black people, including George Floyd, and the massive street protests that followed; global-warming-related catastrophes; the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, just to name a few. It all makes “Tipping Point” more “tangible” than it would have been just 22 months ago, she said.

“It’s now going to be, ‘Oh, my God.’ Rather than ‘This could be somebody else,’ this could be us, for real,” Corning said.

“The Tipping Point” opens Wed., Jan. 19, and receives 20 performances through Jan. 30. A few performances are already sold out. More information is here.