Written and directed by Carmen Aguirre and based upon her own experiences as a child, the West Coast premier of The Refugee Hotel is presented by Langara’s Studio 58. It follows a family of four who, five months after the 1974 coup in Chile, find themselves hustled into a hotel in the West End of Vancouver by a frazzled social worker, who tries in vain to communicate with them (hilariously depicted by Emily Doreen Wilson). The father, Fat Jorge (Logan Fenske), the mother, Flaca (Elizabeth Barrett), and their two children Manuelita (Krista Skwarok) and Joselito (Teo Saefkow) are given a room in the run-down hotel, with a gruff and confused receptionist at the helm (a stellar performance by Julien Galipeau). They are joined by others, also refugees from Chile: Juan (Joshua Chambers), Manuel (Mason Temple), Isabel (Lisa Baran), and Cristina (Alina Blackett). Eventually, they also meet Bill O’Neill (David Johnston), a hippie “gringo” who believes in the resistance in Chile and helps them find housing and employment.
Throughout their first week in Canada together, they struggle with differences, but they also struggle together through the commonality of their experience: of loss, of displacement, of resistance, of what they left behind and of what they have gained. Everywhere they go, they are followed by the cueca dancer (Matthias Falvai), the personification of the pull back to Chile that they feel. There is trauma and pain, there are memories of imprisonment and unimaginable torture; but there is laughter and dancing, there is family and love. The characters cope in whichever ways they can. The Refugee Hotel is poignant, heavy with pain and history, but it is at many times expertly funny and captures the dark humour that resonates best in the hardest of times. It is important to note that due to the fact that this is a student production, none of the actors portraying Chilean and Mapuche characters are Latinx or indigenous, a fact that is acknowledged by everyone involved in the making of the play.
Although Carmen Aguirre wrote The Refugee Hotel seventeen years ago, after Augusto Pinochet (the leader of a military dictatorship that spanned across the 1970s and ‘80s in Chile) was arrested, the essence of the play remains as timely as ever. It occurs in one hotel with one group of people coming from one country, fleeing from one dictator; but the trauma, the displacement, the yearning for a homeland that is up in flames is universal: that is Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Syria. It speaks to Canada’s role as a new home to refugees from around the world, fleeing war, poverty, dictatorships, crumbling buildings, missing and dead family members––a role that has been challenged over and over again by xenophobes and racists. Some of the characters rise with incredible resilience, while others can never deal with all of the pain they feel; The Refugee Hotel is not easy to watch, but that doesn’t make it any less important.
The Refugee Hotel runs until Sunday, April 9. More info + tickets can be found here.