Daily Hampshire Gazette: Shea Theater hosts multicultural night of song, dance and poetry

Photo by Sarah Crosby

For the Gazette
Sunday, April 10, 2016
TURNERS FALLS — “How many people here can directly trace their lineage back to an immigrant?” Monte Belmonte, WRSI host and president of the Shea Theater Arts Council, asked the packed theater Saturday night. Hands flew up throughout the crowd.

Most of the singers, dancers and poets in the sold-out show were not professional performers, but students of the Center for New Americans, a resource center that provides free English language instruction and other services to immigrants and refugees in the Pioneer Valley.

“Hi everybody! My name’s Marilyn.” A couple of hours before curtain, Marilyn Sylla, the volunteer director of “Immigrant Voices: A Celebration of the Arts,” introduced herself to the performers assembled near the stage. They were wearing traditional dress from a variety of cultures.

This was their only full rehearsal, but there was an electric feeling as dancers in big-skirted dresses laughed, men dragged African drums on stage, and a woman shushed four little boys in ranchero outfits into attention. When asked how long he’d been studying dance, one of the little rancheros adjusting the gold trim on his trousers answered, “three weeks.”

They prepared to perform a showcase of acts as varied as Moldovan folk songs sung by Eduard Rotari, Svetlana Blagadarenco and Olga Felchanu and Costa Rican dance performed by Maricella Obando Moya.

Center for New Americans Director Laurie Millman organized the show to introduce the broader community to some of its newest neighbors. Some arrived in the U.S. just a few months ago, but they all have a desire to share their own cultural arts and traditions with their new community.

They may not have had long to rehearse, but adaptability and resourcefulness are necessary on a daily basis for those adjusting to a new culture. Farhad Farahbasksh, who came to America from Iran with his wife and two children in 2014, explained that the civil engineering degree he earned in Iran is not valid here, so he will have to find a new career. His children, for whose sake he wanted to emigrate, are happy and learning well in their school, however. Farahbasksh performed a poem he wrote called “Life: A Story.” One line in particular captured the spirit of the evening, “Life is when the window is open to our world.”

And the crowd seemed pleased. Turners Falls resident Hannah Sanchez said she was “glad and proud” the concert was “happening in this community.” Molly Chambers of Greenfield said, “I was just telling the man behind me that this is the way the world should be.”

Tamara Kaplan, a teacher at the Center for New Americans who has been associated with the organization for 20 years, has seen how immigrants have met their challenges and gone on to successfully integrate into American culture, becoming citizens, workers and homeowners. One of the most inspiring aspects of her work, she says, is observing the gratitude her students have for all the opportunities they find in the U.S. “They are so grateful for everything — the natural beauty of western Massachusetts, the community of people here, the schools, the economy of Greenfield, the free classes they can enroll in.”

Such gratitude was evident in the poem “She,” an ode to America by Rosa Guerra.

“She held me like a mother holds her child … she extended her warm heart to me like nobody else,” recited Guerra, who emigrated from Argentina 20 years ago. Since coming to America, Guerra has earned a bachelor’s degree in social work, raised a son and bought a home. Having been a student at the center when she first arrived, Guerra now works there as a career adviser.

A more recent arrival, the evening’s master of ceremonies Samba Kane, emigrated from Senegal in December and has been studying English for just three months. No one would have guessed that, as he graciously introduced and praised each act, his new English musically modulated.

Hearing the variety of accents was one of the marvels of the evening, as performers introduced themselves or recited poetry in English touched with accents from Moldova, Guinea, Vietnam, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Iran, Senegal and Argentina. Together, these became, as Farahbasksh put it in his poem, “the language of my new world.”

Such blending was illustrated in the performance of Grupo Folklorico Tradiciones, a dance troupe dedicated to promoting and educating the public about traditional Colombian dance. Cumbia dance was created with an African rhythmic structure, native Latin American melodies and the swirling-skirted costumes of Spanish colonialists. The five smiling dancers gliding and shimmying across the stage had a mesmerizing effect on the audience.

Alpha “Kabisco” Kaba teaches West African drumming and dance at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts charter school. Accompanying himself on the djembe drum, he sang two songs from his native Guinea on the theme of freedom. Kaba, Sekou Sylla, and Pape Ba accompanied models as they showcased the traditional fashions of their homelands, as well as a Guinean dance performed by Bountouraby Sylla.

Finally, the drummers backed up Marilyn Sylla as she roused members of the audience from their seats to follow her in a series of steps and movements to the beat of djembe drums and the shekere, a gourd rattle. The freshly painted walls of the Shea shook with the stomping and clapping in response to the call of the djembe. The evening ended with performers and audience singing together the Woody Guthrie classic, “This Land is Your Land.”

“In a time when immigrants are being denigrated instead of celebrated,” Belmonte said, it seems crucial to recall that immigrants have always been “the backbone of America.”

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