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“The New Colossus”: In New Play, Tim Robbins Tackles Immigration & Xenophobia

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President Trump said Wednesday that he would expand his highly controversial travel ban, which already bars citizens from seven countries, most of which have Muslim-majority populations — Libya, Iran, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, North Korea and Venezuela — from entering the United States. Politico reports that the expanded ban could implement immigration restrictions on seven more countries: Belarus, Burma, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, Sudan and Tanzania, according to two sources. We speak with acclaimed actor, director and activist Tim Robbins, whose recent work has focused on immigration to the United States. He has starred in many movies, including “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Mystic River” and “Dark Waters.” He also wrote and directed the highly acclaimed film “Dead Man Walking.” He is the director of a new play about immigration called “The New Colossus,” with the play’s title borrowed from the 1883 Emma Lazarus sonnet that is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: President Trump said Wednesday that he would expand his highly controversial travel ban, which already bars citizens from seven mainly Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. Trump made the comment to reporters at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have to be safe. Our country has to be safe. You see what’s going on in the world. Our country has to be safe. So we have a very strong travel ban, and we’ll be adding a few countries to it.

AMY GOODMAN: Trump’s widely condemned travel ban currently bars citizens from Libya, Iran, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, North Korea and Venezuela from entering the U.S. Trump signed it almost exactly three years ago in one of his first major acts as president, sparking widespread outrage. Politico reports the expanded ban could implement immigration restrictions on seven more countries: Belarus, Burma, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, according to two sources.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, we turn now to an acclaimed actor, director and activist whose recent work has focused on immigration to the United States: Academy Award winner Tim Robbins. Tim has starred in many movies, including The Shawshank Redemption, Mystic River and Dark Waters. He also wrote and directed the highly acclaimed film Dead Man Walking. But he’s also the director of a new play about immigration called The New Colossus. The play’s title is borrowed from the 1883 Emma Lazarus sonnet which was inscribed on the Statue of Liberty in 1903. Here’s the play’s trailer.

LY MY DUNG: [played by Stephanie Lee] My name is Li My Dung. I am 25 years old.

MEHMET FATIH TRASH: [played by Onur Alpsen] My name is Mehmet Fatih Trash, and I’m 34 years old.

YETTA ROTHSCHILD: [played by Jeanette Rothschild Horn] My name is Yetta Rothschild, and I’m 68 years old.

GABRIELA MIA GARCIA: [played by Paulette Zubata] Mi nombre es Gabriela Mia Garcia. Yo tengo 23 años.

HOMAYUN DIDEBAN: [played by Pierre Adeli] My name is Homayun Didebanam. I’m 42 years old.

TATYANA IOSIFOVNA BIRGER: [played by Mashka Wolfe] My name is Tatyana Iosifovna Birger. I am 33 years old.

ANNA MARGARET WONG: [played by Kayla Blake] My name is Anna Margaret Wong. I am 9 years old.

MEHMET FATIH TRASH: I was born in Adana, Turkey.

TATYANA IOSIFOVNA BIRGER: I was born in Moscow, in the Soviet Union.

HOMAYUN DIDEBAN: Isfahan, Iran.

LY MY DUNG: Dalat, Vietnam.

YETTA ROTHSCHILD: Stuttgart, Germany.

MIRKO PETKOVIC: [played by Zivko Petkovic] Mokro Polje, Yugoslavia.

GABRIELA MIA GARCIA: Yo vengo de Michoacán, México.

SADIE DUNCAN: [played by Quonta Beasley] Tensas Parish, Louisiana.

ANNA MARGARET WONG: Borneo, Malaysia.

ARANKA MARKUS: [played by Dora Kiss] Budapest, Hungary.

HOMAYUN DIDEBANAM: I’m a refugee in the year 1979.

THE ACTORS’ GANG: [inaudible]

MEHMET FATIH TRASH: I’m a refugee in 2017.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for Tim Robbins’ new play The New Colossus. He’s joining us now in our New York studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you back, Tim.

TIM ROBBINS: It’s great to be back.

AMY GOODMAN: So, The New Colossus. I mean, what we are experiencing now, in addition to this travel ban, pregnant women coming to the United States will have to be tested. The State Department plans to impose travel restrictions on pregnant women, the Associated Press is reporting, to curb what is known as birth tourism? The women who are pregnant, otherwise eligible for U.S. tourist visas, will have to prove they’re visiting the U.S. for other reasons than to have their child. Talk about —

TIM ROBBINS: A slippery slope.

AMY GOODMAN:The New Colossus.

TIM ROBBINS: Had someone — a friend of mine passed through the border. And they were going through her texts and saw that she was being friendly with another woman, said, “Are you a” —

AMY GOODMAN: Wait, wait, wait. What do you mean, “they were going through her texts”? Who’s “they”?

TIM ROBBINS: The border control people.

AMY GOODMAN: Where was this?

TIM ROBBINS: In the South. I don’t want to say specifically where.

AMY GOODMAN: So they took her phone, and they’re reading her texts.

TIM ROBBINS: Yeah. And they see a text where she’s being friendly with another woman. They say, “Are you involved with a lesbian relationship with this woman?” I mean, the slippery slope. You know, when you empower people with ignorance and with this kind of paranoia about everyone coming into our country south of the border that must be trying to take something from us, it’s really, you know, denigrating not only to the individuals involved on both sides — both the border guard and the immigrant — but also to our country itself. It’s not what I think of when I think of us as a country that is welcoming.

You know, we started The New Colossus in the Obama years during the Syrian refugee crisis. And we asked ourselves the questions at The Actors’ Gang: Who are we as a country? Who are we as a theater company? And I had 12 actors from various parts of the world, some of whom English was a second language. And I asked them to write their story, write the story of either their immigration or their parents’ or grandparents’ immigration. And we came up with this story of 12 different people, from 12 different time periods, speaking 12 different languages, telling the story of the arduous journey towards freedom — something that unites us, by the way, as a country. I don’t think we often think about that.

And in these times, that are so divisive, it’s so exciting to be able to go out into the United States and tell this story, because at the end of the play I come out and I say, “Let’s — I want to talk to you, the audience,” and we start discovering who the audience is. And first I ask, “Is there anyone in the audience that is indigenous or descended from indigenous?” Some hands go up. “What nation?” “Cherokee,” etc. Then I ask, “Is anyone here descended from people that were brought here against their will?” African Americans. “Do you know where from?” “No.” “What year?” “No.” One of our great original sins that’s never been atoned for, robbing an entire people of their history. And then I ask, “Are there any immigrants or refugees? Any refugees? What year did you come? From where? Immigrants, what year? Where from?” Some hands come up. Then I ask, “Sons or daughters of immigrants or refugees?” More hands come up. “Where from? What year?” “Grandsons, granddaughters of immigrants or refugees?” More hands come up. “Great-grandsons,” etc. The whole crowd, the whole audience. In our theater in Los Angeles, every day, every time we do it —

AMY GOODMAN: This is Actors’ Gang.

TIM ROBBINS: Actors’ Gang — we put a map up in our lobby, and we have magnetic pins for people to place where they’re from in the world. And in Los Angeles, in our small theater, every time we do the play, the entire world is represented, reflective of who we are as a culture, something that probably you’d find nowhere else in the world, which is something unique and fantastic about what it is to be here.

And we think about what — you know, this play has led us to really think about what is it, what is this thing that we all share together in this country, this DNA, if you will. Well, first of all, it’s the DNA that said, “No, I will not tolerate religious oppression. No, I will not tolerate fascism or famine or Nazism. I will risk my life to get out of here, because I do not accept it.” First, that DNA. And the people that stayed behind didn’t make it. And then the DNA of the person that’s strong enough to have survived that journey. And then a journey overseas, over the sea, in boats. A lot died on the way. Then, that kind of character that survived once they got here with nothing and then created a future for their family? This is our blood. This is what we are made of. This is something that is something we share, that I think should be celebrated. And that’s why we’re going out on the road to tell this story.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to ask about how it is that conceptions of immigration in the U.S. might have changed. Last year — over all these decades. You’ve spoken to people, through your play, of several generations, who have come to the U.S. Last year, following condemnation of the Trump administration rule limiting permanent status for low-income immigrants, acting Director of Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli attempted to defend the new policy by rewriting the iconic Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty. That’s the poem, of course, that takes your — your play is from, the title of the poem. This is Cuccinelli speaking to NPR’s Rachel Martin last year.

RACHEL MARTIN: Would you also agree that Emma Lazarus’s words etched on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor,” are also part of the American ethos?

KEN CUCCINELLI: They certainly are. Give me your tired and your poor, who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge. That plaque was put on the Statue of Liberty at almost the same time as the first public charge law was passed. Very interesting timing.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: He later defended his comments in a CNN interview, suggesting Emma Lazarus’s poem was written about, quote, “people coming from Europe.”

TIM ROBBINS: Wow.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, if you could respond to this, two points that he makes — first of all, low-income immigrants, who appear, in his view, not to be welcome, and also that initially immigrants to America were, of course, European?

TIM ROBBINS: Well, first of all, always distrust any person in politics trying to rewrite poetry.

Now, there’s a couple of lines they left out: the “Give me … the wretched refuse of your teeming shore … the homeless.” Give them to me. What this is is a story of strength. It’s a poem of strength. It’s saying we are a strong-enough country to accept people that are hurt, that are hurting. We’re strong enough to hold you up. That’s how strong we are as a country. It’s a poem that tells what it is to be compassionate, to be empathetic and to hold power. I will light “my lamp beside the golden door!” I will guide your safe passage into these harbors, you who are — you who are hurt, you who are hurting.

This rewriting of history, first of all, every single immigrant has been demonized. Every wave has been demonized. I grew up with second-generation Italians and Irish in New York City. And there was “The Irish need not apply.” These are kids that were descended from people that were called the worst epithets, held onto their dignity. Every immigrant has this similar struggle, this similar story. This is nothing new. It’s unique now because the differences are being weaponized. And it’s, I think, tragic for our country.

And this is why we want to tell this story and why we want to hear the audience’s stories, to reaffirm who we are, to really tell the story of — you know, the person sitting next to you is probably from somewhere else. And if you’re not an immigrant or refugee, you’re not that far removed. You’re a couple generations removed from that. And we should be holding up these people. It takes great courage. This is a hero’s journey. It’s always been a hero’s journey to say no to what you — to something that is violent or oppressive and to risk your life to come here.

We had a matinée out in Los Angeles. And the map we put up in the lobby — this was the one particular day. It was a matinée for high school students in Los Angeles. And the map was predominantly Mexico, Central America and South America. And we talked that day about the rhetoric that is going around about immigration right now, the demonization of the other. And one of the children was talking about their parents, and another one was talking about their grandparents. And we started talking about what — how we look at your parents and how we look at your grandparents. Let’s stop thinking about them the way they want to talk about it, the way they’ve been using rhetoric to demonize it, and let’s talk about the hero’s journey. Let’s talk about the mythic journey, the courage it takes to leave behind your home. No one wants to leave their home. Who would want to leave their home? There’s something in their home that is creating trouble and a danger for their children. And then to walk 500 miles for a future, this is a noble effort. This is a hero’s journey. And we have to stop thinking about it in the way that the media is portraying it, and talk about it in mythic terms. This is our history, my ancestors, your ancestors. This is the mythic hero’s journey.

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