THE TAXI PROJECT By Emma Beltrán, Martha Kuwee Kumsa, Sheng Xue and Goran Simic with Erica Kopyto and Weyni Mengesha, directed by Mengesha, with Miranda Edwards, Patrick Garrow, Mayahuel Tecozautla and Diana Tso. Presented by PEN Canada and the Art for Real Change Collective at Alchemy Theatre (133 Tecumseth). Previews Thursday, July 31, opens Friday and runs to August 9, Monday-Thursday 2 pm, Friday-Saturday 7:30 pm. Pwyc. 416-703-8448, ext 23.
We've all heard stories about the immigrant who comes to Canada with a PhD and the only job she or he can get is driving a taxi.
What if that person hasn't chosen to come here, but has in fact fled from home? That's the tale - or rather the four tales - told in The TAXI Project, a work-in-progress written by four members of PEN Canada's Writers in Exile program.
With a touch of autobiography, the play links a quartet of characters forced to leave their native countries to begin a new life here.
"Though our stories are unique to each of us, since we're writers from places that are different geographically, socially and politically, we share a similar attitude," says poet Emma Beltrán, who collaborated with Martha Kuwee Kumsa, Sheng Xue and Goran Simic on the script.
"For each of us, it was a painful and difficult process to leave our countries and come to Canada as exiles. Each of us has had to run away and lose all that we love and wish for. Even though the journeys have been different, the reasons for leaving different, we have all faced persecution in our homeland."
Jail, torture and war are part of their stories, and the characters they've created - Alejandra from Mexico, Seeyyee from Ethiopia, Xiao Hong from China and Exyou from the former Yugoslavia - can't forget events seared in their memories.
Exyou wasn't able to bury his family, and the passionate Alejandra, a member of the national university student strike, was forced to leave a friend. Xiao records her memories of the Tiananmen Square massacre when she comes to Canada, while Seeyyee was an activist who grieves the family she left in a war-torn nation.
Exyou is the connecting figure here. A photojournalist in his own country during the Bosnian War, he now drives a cab in Toronto and meets other characters who become his fares. But his taxi is unusual, for it contains pictures of his past life and of passengers who share his refugee status.
"All of the characters have something hanging over their head and realize what they share," notes director Weyni Mengesha, who helped facilitate the work with dramaturg Erica Kopyto.
"In a similar fashion, the four writers, despite their separate backgrounds, recognize each other because they understand the longing and also the complexity of what freedom means.
"At some level, what they dream of doesn't exist any more, and they have to let it go to continue working for change. At the same time, they're human beings who miss their memories and their relationships."
The TAXI Project has a number of matinee performances aimed at young audiences. As with the evening performances, those shows are followed by a reading by a member of the Writers in Exile program. Among the participants are Luis Matta, Zdenka Acin, Benjamin Santamaria Ochoa and Reza Berhane.
"It's vital that youth hear these people's stories," notes Beltrán, the TAXI program's lead writer. "Canada has so many immigrants, but not all are people in exile. The difference is that the latter group, facing arrest or persecution, can't go back home.
"Young audiences are sensitive enough to realize that these stories are powerful. I want them to be challenged and grow as a result of hearing them."