The Container reminds us that immigrants are people, too

There's a little uneasiness before The Container starts: a shuffle for the restrooms, some groping in purses for water bottles. We've already signed a release saying we understand the experience will be claustrophobic, and we know we'll be closed in, seated along the sides of a large shipping container for the duration of Claire Bayley's play. But we also know that the show lasts only an hour, and if things get overwhelming, we can signal our discomfort and be released into the parking lot. The immigrants who make their way to Europe from Africa or across the desert to the United States, the desperate souls who hurl themselves onto the sea in leaky boats — these people have no such safety net.

The door of the shipping container slams. Silence and darkness follow. Then a flashlight beams out, and some of our fellow passengers start to speak. Each has a different story, from Mariam, who fled Afghanistan after seeing her husband beheaded by the Taliban for their crime of teaching girls, to Asha and Fatima, who have left a squalid refugee camp in Somalia. The immigrants can't see where they're going, and don't even know if the truck they inhabit is moving or still. They're hungry and thirsty, and rifts begin appearing among them. These rifts deepen when The Agent slams his way in to tell them they're on the final leg of their journey, but if they want to continue to the United Kingdom, they'll need to come up with more money. With the exception of the wealthy Kurdish businessman Ahmad, they have already paid out almost everything they have, though each clutches some small emblem of sustenance or reassurance: a bag of rice, a watch, a grandfather's ring, the broken gun Mariam's husband gave her for protection. By now we're so engrossed that it's all we can do not to search our pockets for money or a leftover candy bar to hand over.

Ana Mihaela Lucaci, Skip Francoeur, Wadi Muhaisen, LaDios Muhammad, Rich Beall and Adrienne Martin-Fullwood play their roles with moving conviction and commitment. At a talk-back after the performance, Beall explains that The Container is not political — and it isn't in the narrow way we usually define the word. It doesn't criticize the current anti-immigrant fervor in the United States; it says nothing of Arizona laws, citizen border patrols or the number of people from Latin America who die attempting to enter this country. But the very act of portraying immigrants as human is profoundly subversive. All over the world and in every age, people have been forced to leave their countries because of unbearable conditions. My mother left Czechoslovakia in 1939 to escape the Nazis, married an eighty-year-old shepherd on paper so that she could cross the border, and eventually reached England. In the early '80s, Guatemalans and Salvadorans who had been imprisoned, tortured, watched massacres or seen family members killed flowed into the United States seeking sanctuary and were often returned to face disappearance or death. Earlier this month, having fought deportation from Britain for years, Jimmy Mubenga was murdered on a plane from Heathrow by the private security agents escorting him back to Angola. Other passengers heard his screams and did nothing.Poor deluded Asha believes she'll be able to get a job at Buckingham Palace, but how much better off will she and the others be if they make it to England? Some will find viable lives; some will commit suicide when their requests for asylum are denied; some will die for lack of money or medical help; some, like Mubenga, will be beaten or killed.

"For the rest of my life, I'm going to have that at the back of my mind," said one of the passengers on Mubenga's plane. "Could I have done something? That is going to bother me every time I go to sleep. I didn't get involved because I was scared I would get kicked off the flight and lose my job. But the man paid a higher price than I would have."

In making immigrants visible, the 73rd Avenue Theatre Company has done something vital and important. And their work illuminates more than just the grim side of the immigration equation; it also points to the complexity of these refugees' lives and cultures, and the richness they bring to the places where they settle. Researching her role as Fatima, Adrienne Martin-Fullwood entered a Somali restaurant in Aurora she had driven past hundreds of times before and asked for help with the script. She got it, and the owner even lent her the gray garment she wears in the play. More important, she discovered a world of warmth, laughter, community and "awesome food" she'd never realized was there.