nytheatre.com review by Julie Blumenthal
August 15, 2004
A woman in the row ahead of me had her hands clamped over her ears for much of Haven, and I understood the impulse: mixed with the delicate songs and wry humor in Sara Kahn’s melting alto were a young woman repeatedly raped by soldiers; a child witnessing the murder of most of her family at point-blank range; a wrongly accused captive told repeatedly that people like him “have no rights.”
It’s a volatile swell of histories, rage and hope. And Kahn, Broadway baby turned human rights worker, adds her own story of transformation to the mix. Kahn is witty, full of heart, with pixieish energy and an accomplished voice; and a montage featuring lyrics from her singing trade show days and a re-created audition in which she ended up serenading Liz Swados’ dog when the director disappeared is extremely funny Disillusioned, Kahn quits the stage and “learns about the word ‘geopolitics’.” Working as a counselor in Bosnia, Cyprus, and finally New Jersey, she discovers a passion for helping refugees, and in the process, rediscovers herself.
Is it possible for Kahn’s personal story to hold its own against that bush wife in Sierra Leone? Against Laila, the child whose Unicef schoolbook features detailed instructions for how to proceed safely in a minefield? Against Fareek, the coffee vendor who, years after fleeing for his life from the mujahadeen, is taken away on September 12, 2001?
Perhaps, in another setting, at another time. But here and now, I found Kahn’s parallels between her journey and the refugees’, of her retreat from performing and Laila’s retreat from a minefield, impossible to swallow. Kahn’s material, drawn from her clients’ testimony and bolstered by her literate writing, sure delivery, and Kelly Dupuis and Marc Smollin’s plaintive score, is potent stuff. However, Haven gets sidetracked by the stories that CAN be told from the story that MUST be told.
Every time a horror was related, every time a reference was made to a refugee’s overwhelming gratitude for being in America, without irony, with a sense of “things are different here;” I felt the specter of Abu Ghraib, of Guantanamo, of every Middle Easterner in an American prison without representation or the ability to communicate with loved ones, sitting heavily in the room. Kahn opens the door to an exploration of our current situation (from which many of us have our hands clamped over our ears), in a deeper, worldwide context; but she doesn’t pursue this chance.
Program notes are split into three categories: Refugees (the current quota reduced to less than half its pre-9/11 amount, with fewer than half this amount admitted); Asylees (approximately 5,000 currently held in quasi-prisons across the U.S.); and the Patriot Act (with notes focusing on the provisions for secret detentions of non-citizens). All this information is shocking, and dreadful, and would have been astoundingly powerful delivered onstage, instead of on the back of a program. At curtain call, Kahn said, “Let’s fight to keep this country a place where [refugees] are welcome.” I couldn’t agree more; I simply wish she’d used more of the show itself to say it.