By Retta Blaney
Members of New York theater company Blessed Unrest were meeting in 2015 with their partners in the Kosovo theater group Teatri ODA, searching for a third original play. They had no way of knowing that their choice — a story of Albanians’ life-saving hospitality during World War II — would be so timely when it opened Off-Broadway in the spring of 2019.
“It’s important to show refugees as people under desperate circumstances,” said Matt Opatrny, Blessed Unrest’s cofounder and managing director. “What frightens me is the way refugees are being portrayed. You don’t leave Honduras and walk to Mexico unless you’re desperate. We have to see these people as human beings who need help.”
Four members of the production know firsthand how this feels. They were refugees in the late 1990s in the no man’s land between Kosovo and Macedonia, among the one million fleeing ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo. Their experiences are part of the stories in the play, which parallels a story of Jews fleeing Poland in the late 1930s and finding refuge in Albania, the only country in Europe to have more Jews after the war than before.
Opatrny, 44, discussed Refuge, which premiered April 27 at Baruch Performing Arts Center, in a phone interview from his apartment. He called himself “the lead playwright” and explained that Blessed Unrest’s productions do not start with a written script. Through a “devised process,” the show is developed with the actors and codirectors. The script was still changing within weeks of its opening.
“I was writing text in response to what was happening in the room,” he said. “The way we work is physically first. We keep the script out as long as possible. We’re building a physical vocabulary before the script. I’m following the process rather than leading it.”
The result is a powerful show that combines story with dance, music, and song. Refugeis modern in staging and yet conveys an ancient feeling of human struggle and triumph. At the beginning, two young women in today’s New York City come together in a hearty embrace. “I exist because of your family,” says Maya (Becca Schneider) with gratitude and wonder. She has only recently learned what the Albanian family of Teuta (Ilire Vinca) did for her grandmother and great grandparents in the late 1930s.
Enacted on a bare stage with few props (set design by Sonya Plenefisch, with lighting by Jay Ryan), the story takes prominence as it journeys back to Poland as the Nazis approach and Miriam (Schneider) and her husband, Yakov (Perri Yaniv), make the decision to escape with their daughter, Adah (Nancy McArthur). They are rejected by every country they petition for refuge, except for Albania, which issued papers to anyone who wanted them.
“You are safe here,” the family hears as it arrives at the small house of Bujar (Eshref Durmishi), his wife, Zoja (Vinca), and their daughter, Tana (Daniela Markaj). “Now we are cousins. You are Albanian.”
The characters are composites, based on years of research and firsthand accounts of many people who had helped Jewish refugees. Opatrny said at least 2,000 Jews have been accounted for as being saved, but that anecdotally the number is much larger. Albanians, mostly Muslim, welcomed Jewish refugees into their homes and gave them Albanian identities. The refugees lived openly, holding jobs such as tailors and sign painters, even after the Nazi occupation.
“They were right in front of them, not hiding in basements,” Opatrny said. “They were fully accepted as members of the Albanian community.”
Florent Mehmeti, Teatri ODA’s cofounder and a codirector of Refuge, knew of the Albanians’ heroism and generosity during the war and was the one to propose it as a joint production.
“Of course, we had never heard of it,” Opatrny said. “Almost no one we knew had heard of it.”
Mehmeti knew the story because he, along with Vinca, Durmishi, and Markaj, was among the refugees.
The dialogue is bilingual. Opatrny wrote it in English and Mehmeti translated it into Albanian. The production is enhanced by musicians from Metropolitan Klezmer, who play traditional Albanian music and Yiddish songs onstage.
This partnership seemed appropriate, Opatrny said, because Blessed Unrest has been global in scope since its founding two decades ago. Opatrny and his wife, Jessica Burr, the group’s founding artistic director and a Refuge codirector, traveled to Albania in 2005 to seek an international partner. They chose Albania because Burr had visited in 1993 as a college student and was overwhelmed by the hospitality of the people, who were extremely poor.
“The generosity of the people blew her away,” he said. “She wanted to bring something back to them. The way she chose to do that was through theater.”
Opatrny and Burr discovered Teatri ODA and knew they had found their match.
“We artistically fell in love with them,” he said. “This is something amazing to us. It’s about reflecting another culture that is often ignored.”
As Opatrny has found, it is a rich and giving culture despite the hardships the people have suffered in being overrun by many occupiers throughout the years and having their religion changed from pagan to Catholic to Muslim as the different powers swept through.
“It’s an ancient culture. They’re fiercely proud of who they are. Circumstances changed, but their code of honor, their besa, never did. Cultural laws supersede government laws.”
This is portrayed in the play when the Jewish refugees arrive at the home of the poor Albanians. They are given the master bedroom, and told that the house is now theirs.
“It was not unusual that they did this. It’s a tribal culture with cultural rules. It’s hard for Americans to understand. If a guest arrives at your house, it belongs to them. If New York were flooded with refugees, I can’t imagine seeing it as their apartment and not mine.
“Their strength is having lived through adversity for thousands of years.”
The two theater companies hope to share their story of the Albanians’ magnanimous deeds by raising money to perform Refuge in the Balkans next year. In the future they would like to tour Europe and Israel and then return to New York.
While some of the Albanians who harbored Jews are honored as the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the scope of their heroism remains little known.
“For us Albanians this is not something unusual,” Teuta says in Refuge. “People needed help and we helped. If your guest is thirsty and you offer them water, you don’t write about it in history books.”
Retta Blaney is an eight-time award-winning journalist and author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life through the Eyes of Actors.