A NEW DOCUMENTARY PLAY THAT FOCUSES ON THE EXPERIENCE OF IMMIGRANTS in Middle Tennessee opens this weekend in Nashville. The Tennessee Women’s Theater Project commissioned Voices of Nashville in response to the expanding foreign-born population in the Nashville metropolitan area.
TWTP founder Maryanna Clark explained, “I come from the Northeast, and for me the city’s growing cultural diversity is exciting, but not every Nashvillian is comfortable with it. We hope the play will help people meet their new neighbors in the non-threatening environment of theater – to get to know them as human beings, in ways that headlines and immigration rhetoric can’t accomplish.”
Playwrights Christine Mather and Sara Sharpe had conversations with a wide range of immigrants living in the city--some who have become American citizens, some who have not--and wrote a composite play that is not centered around any one nationality or class of people. The varied stories represent the diverse groups that have come to find, for better or worse, a home somewhere in the Music City.
Over the past two decades, Nashville has seen a large increase in its foreign-born population. Many growing communities have been built up by early refugee relocation efforts. Beginning in the late 1980s, Kurds fleeing the oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq were granted asylum and refugee status in states across the country, but Nashville kept drawing wave after wave. The city now hosts the largest Kurdish population in the United States, and was even one of only five American cities where polling places were set up for expatriates to vote in Iraq’s first post-Saddam election in 2005. More recently, Nashville became a home to many Bhutanese Hindus who participated in a US State Department refugee resettlement program, and there is a substantial East African population as well.
The true thoughts of many “Real Americans” spread virally recently in response to a woman of Indian descent becoming the next Miss America. While blowback against these sentiments temporarily unified progressives who despise the objectification of women and earnestly non-racist pageant supporters, the incident provided some pretty hard evidence that many of us aren’t so good at telling American citizens apart from “terrorists,” much less tolerating immigrant integration in our hometowns.
Fortunately, there are several groups and organizations like the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition that operate as advocates and support centers, and these are the places Mather and Sharpe began their research.
Mather told me, “We started last fall  by attending a number of meetings of groups that work on immigration issues and helping newcomers to Nashville. Some of these people were born outside the USA, and all of them knew people who might be interested in talking with us. We also interviewed friends, friends of friends born in other countries, and even people met by chance in airports or playgrounds.”
The play is built around speeches gleaned from these interviews, and while some people were worried about having their personal story be told to a wide audience, Mather says they had little difficulty getting people to speak openly about their experiences adjusting to life in America in general and Nashville specifically. While it is a documentary play, the names have been changed and some composite characters are used to facilitate the storytelling.
Still, there wasn’t enough room for everyone they met. I asked Mather which nationalities were represented in the play, and she responded, “Not nearly as many as we'd like to represent. There is a tremendous diversity of people in Nashville and we wish we could have represented every country on the globe, because there is probably someone here from there. We hope that the experiences we chose resonate with people from all over the world, including Tennessee. We interviewed people from Mexico, Nigeria, India, Venezuela, Azerbaijan (in the former Soviet Union), Germany, Sudan, Canada, Kurdistan, and Turkey. Not all of these countries are represented in the play (we have four actors) but all of their experiences and words were part of the process.”
After its initial run over three weekends at the Z. Alexander Looby Theater, the show will make appearances throughout the region at churches, schools, and community centers in an effort to expose even more audiences.
“Nashville is an international city, and I think people here have begun to recognize that,” Mather said. “ People come to Nashville for job opportunities, for the weather, because their friends live here, because they fall in love - it doesn't matter whether you were born in the USA or not, people come here for every reason you can imagine.”
Voices of Nashville opens October 4th, and runs for the next three weekends. For all details, visit the Tennessee Women's Theater Project website.