by Kristin Kurens
Can one woman change the world?
That’s merely one question left hanging at the end of Elizabeth Huffman’s one-woman play, Not My Revolution.
Huffman, a Syrian-American, wrote the play in response to the current political climate. She’s also the sole performer, playing a Syrian refugee who’s fallen from a life of luxury and leisure: yacht excursions, travel, chauffeurs, servants, the art world. Then in flashes, she’s Marie Antoinette facing execution, recounting her fall from royalty and grace.
It’s like watching the actions and lives of women ripple over the centuries, seeing how a life hundreds of years ago can affect one today, how that ripple can then be acknowledged, altered, strengthened, continued.
I met Huffman by pure accident: she’s my temporary neighbor while the show runs in Albuquerque, NM at The Cell Theatre. She enthusiastically agreed to sit down with me to discuss her play, her passion, and her career.
The war in Syria strikes a personal note for Huffman: “I still have family in Syria who are having a very difficult time. I know many friends who have had to flee. I knew that I could not affect much change in terms of giving money . . . there wasn't much I could do all the way over here, except to try to use my art to influence people who could do something.”
Not My Revolution forces the audience to examine personal perspectives on how they see and think of refugees. “That's the whole point of the play,” she says. “It's not so much that it's a political play—although, you can't remove the politics from it. But what it looks at is the very real fact that women aren't the ones making the wars.”
But women pay a huge price for those wars, and, sometimes, as in the case of Marie Antoinette, take the blame for war.
“Talk about false facts,” Huffman laughs, drawing comparison to the current political landscape in the U.S. “The French were legendary for creating false facts with regard to Marie and all of the women in the court of France. They were maligned. Marie didn't stand a chance from the beginning. And most people really have no idea about the truth of who Marie Antoinette was, what she did for her country, how they hung a lot of accusations against her. She was never allowed to speak at her trial. They couldn't wait to execute Marie Antoinette.”
Despite taking the fall for the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette remains a legend. Huffman continues, "But, you know, the joke's on them, because she is still a rock star.”
That rock-star status helps generate a deeper interest in Huffman’s play. “When I say it's about a formerly wealthy displaced Syrian refugee, people say ‘Oh.’” Huffman tells me. “And then I say ‘and Marie Antoinette,’ and they say ‘Oh, really!’ She still commands interest, and it's fun to play her. I think audiences are going to learn things that they never knew.”
A play called French Gray by Josef Bush in 1967 inspired Huffman’s work on Not My Revolution. “I think his original intent was to show the disparity between the rich and the poor in New York City in 1967, and he used Marie as a kind of platform for the rich.
“But in doing so, he gave her the opportunity to defend herself. And in defending herself, she makes no apologies for who she is, and he got facts wrong about her relationship with her husband. But at the same time, clearly his admiration for her kind of took over, which is what attracted me to French Gray ever so long ago when I found it."
Huffman tracked Bush down shortly before he died through Phoebe Wray, who originally played Marie Antoinette in French Gray. He was in a nursing home in Arizona after suffering a stroke. "I spoke to him, and he was thrilled that I was going to do something with his play."
What Huffman has done in Not My Revolution is to anchor the humanity of Syrian refugees, using the magnetic rock-star persona of Marie Antoinette. For all the media and news surrounding the war in Syria and the staggering number of refugees, many people cannot see past the poverty, the camps, the over-crowded boats or men, women, and children desperately seeking asylum.
There's an assumption that because these people have nothing, they came from nothing; they're uneducated. We don't see their former lives, their homes, their roles within a community—because it's all been destroyed.
Huffman recalls a performance in Europe last October. “I did this play in Germany, in Hanau and Bremen. That was an eye-opening experience for me because Germany has a large number of refugees.
“The production I did in Germany was very different from the production here [in Albuquerque]. But in both productions, how the displaced woman copes with the space that she finds for herself, is fascinating.” It's a scene Huffman performs in complete silence.
“We had a talk-back panel after, which featured a Syrian journalist who himself was a refugee, and the head of the French Institute who had been actively helping the refugees.”
There was also a Syrian translator for the journalist, whom Huffman encouraged to participate in the discussion. At first, Huffman recalls, the translator demurred, saying she was only there to translate. Then, about halfway through the talk-back, the translator spoke up. “She said, ‘I don't know how you did it. Watching what you do is exactly what I do every day of my life to try to hold onto some normalcy for myself.’ This is a woman who had a really beautiful home and family; she lost all of her friends.”
The head of the French Institute spoke to the limited European perspective of refugees, saying, “In Europe, people tend to think of refugees in two ways: As bearded men with Kalashnikovs who are there to kill you or boat-people who have had no education, have no money and are there to rob your country of its resources. That's why there's so much resistance.”
We can all be guilty of assumptions, but until we let down our guard, until we ask or offer help, we won’t know a refugee’s story, a homeless woman’s story.
“What they don't realize or see,” Huffman says, “is that so many of these people were highly educated, very well off, had very full, rich lives. You could look at a homeless person—doesn't have to be a refugee—but we make judgments against them: they’re crazy, they deserve to be there, they're drug addicts . . . We never see the actual person, and that this person maybe got into this situation by a series of catastrophic events that could happen to any of us."
And when war enters the equation, all bets are off.
Huffman continues, "When war happens, it's the great leveler. We unraveled at 9/11 and became a nation of fear. It was a horrible incident. Any incident like that is terrible. But when you are living in the Middle East, these are daily concerns. You send your children to school not knowing if they will ever come back.
“We're stressed as a nation, but we can't even conceive of the stress it must be like for people wanting to just raise their children and give them the best life they can possibly give them, just like any of the rest of us.”
After the Albuquerque run of the production, Huffman is returning to Portland, Oregon to continue developing Cygnet Productions and Chain Reaction Theatre's touring production of Not My Revolution, which they plan to take worldwide. The collaborative show was originally performed as a workshop production at Milagro Theatre in Portland.
Huffman is initiating discourse with this production, unveiling the raw humanity of refugees, women. She speaks of a typical audience: “It's only when they experience tragedy or loss that they themselves wish for compassion. I'm trying to circumvent that by presenting a theater piece that will open that dialogue and ask them to consider the way they view refugees or homeless people or anybody trying to escape oppression.
“Where is that famous helping hand that America used to stand for? Now we're shutting doors with that hand, and I think the bulk of people in America are not like that. I think they want to be compassionate.”
Terrorism holds a very real, powerful grip over many nations of the world. We don't know when the next attack will hit, who it will hit, how it will strike.
But Huffman sees hope in humanity—in women in particular. Men have largely ruled for millennia: "I'm looking around the planet and seeing the women who are pushing through."
Change can be difficult, though. Huffman still encounters resistance as a woman in the world of theater, particularly as a director.
But events like the Women's March in January 2017 stand as evidence of the power of women. Huffman was in attendance at the Los Angeles gathering. If women can truly come together for a force of revolution, it could be a remarkable shift in the landscape of politics around the globe.
"I'm still an optimist in spite of everything that's going on around me,” she tells me. “I believe in the nature of good. I believe that people want a peaceful life. There's a lot to refute that statement, but I think in the end, human beings are intrinsically good. I want to say that; I want to believe that. And I invest in that."
The belief that change comes easily seems pervasive and, ultimately, is false.
“Change always comes with pain, it seems. It's like birthing a new idea. As an actor, I'm a historian. I play many different roles from history. I'm mostly a classical director. I've spent my life studying the nature of man in regard to their social situations over time, and things don't change. We are still not evolved. In the seventies I thought we were really going somewhere . . . ”
There are victories, however. We've worked and fought for equality—and not just for women. The legalization of gay marriage is an attest to how far we've come in that struggle for equal rights. But there's still so far to go. Just read the news on any given day and witness the racism and sexism that continues to threaten not just the rights of women and minorities, but their very lives.
“The Women's March,” Huffman maintains, “was one of those victories. Being there, I felt hope—and that I'm not alone.”
Theater can be one of the means by which we maintain a human connection with our fellow humans. It’s something Huffman fiercely believes in. “Theater began with the ancient Greeks as a way of bringing society together. It was actually mandatory that people attend the theater. It was a religious event. The entire city turned out, and so therefore the discussions and the symposiums were to make for a better populous. Theater was always political and entertainment—and for everybody to share."
There's a consequence to the decline of theater, even movies, in favor of staying in and cozying up to the TV. That’s a missed opportunity for social interaction.
The talk-back panels that follow some of Huffman's shows further that interaction, allowing the audience to speak to their experience of and reaction to the play. “People want to talk; they want to share their experience.
“I can't pay my rent half the time because theater is not as supportive . . . but I've devoted my life to it. I'm not going to change now. What I do know is that wonderful feeling between myself and the audience. As a director, I love to tell stories. I love to share with people and hear their responses. The trick is getting people in the door.”
Education plays a huge role in the arts: learning the value of the arts, learning history, seeing a new perspective. And that starts with children. “I always have my faith in the young. I will continue to have my faith in young people. I'm irritated that I'm now an age that I'm being subjected to ageism. Because in my mind I'm still twenty years old—and I'm always curious.
“Ageism is a real thing. I'm regularly turned down for gigs in favor of much younger, just-out-of-grad-school, nowhere-near-my-experience candidates. There are a lot of young women now who are getting opportunities that I never had. Which is good.”
The problem is the underlying assumption that once a woman hits a certain age, her ability to be cutting edge or fresh is either diminished or non-existent.
“I think there's a perception—and I'll be honest I used to have a perception about older people—that they couldn't possibly be as cutting edge. I'm so interested in what young people are interested in today. And I can tell a story.
"There has to be a paradigm shift in every woman's mind, myself included, because I think going down that negative road of ‘well, it's a man's world’ or ‘they're not hiring me because I'm a woman’ . . . that's just a waste of energy. What I've chosen to do is not think about that anymore—and I did for a very long time. I resented it.”
There were so many instances where Huffman felt she just couldn't get through the door, and then she decided to change her perception and actions. “I thought: If that door is shut, I'll just build a new one and open it myself. I'm not going to wait around for validation.”
The capacity and potential for connecting and growing is larger than ever now. Huffman's production of Not My Revolution in Bremen, Germany came about because she decided to make a Skype call. The worldwide connection that most of us take for granted on a daily basis can yield life-changing relationships and opportunities. It's all in how each individual decides to harness that power. Again, it's a matter of choice.
The potential for global reach has larger potential now than at any other point in history. “It's an exasperating time, but it's also a really exciting time. And if there was ever a time for young women to make their mark, it's now.”
Huffman is always looking forward to the next opportunity; she's seeking funding to take Not My Revolution around the world. It's an opportunity to share the powerful story of a Syrian refugee while meeting new people, finding new challenges.
“Long ago I accepted that I can't change the world. I can only try to be the best person I can be and use my intelligence and my compassion and my talent to try to make a difference.”
She emphasizes that there's nothing wrong with entertainment for the sake of entertainment. But Huffman could no longer sit back as the war in Syria continued and an entire population was displaced and stripped of family—children, parents, spouses—home, security.
The worldwide reaction to Syrian refugees is heartbreaking. At the very center are people dispossessed and bereaved, stuck in refugee camps with overcrowding, inhumane conditions, no schools. Surrounding them is a world that largely sees them as an imposition, a threat.
Huffman sees a place for fine arts—painting, literature, music, poetry, any form of expression—especially in times of strife.
“The need for art . . . in the end, it's what elevates us to be better people and we do need it,” she says. She believes that the arts can give voice to pain, anger, depression, rage, suffering. That voice can guide others toward some solace, some connection.
And even if short-lived, that connection can bring humanity closer and shift the course of our lives, one ripple at a time.
Kristin Kurens is a writer, editor, and artist. She thrives on words, music, art, and aiding the verbally challenged. In her free time she writes fiction, paints, travels, imbibes—always in pursuit of the authentic and strange.