Suehyla El-Attar ambitiously takes on a formidable subject in her play “Third Country,” in its world premiere at Horizon Theatre through October 20. The Atlanta playwright broadly depicts the effects of immigration on a small community, called Sidington but closely modeled on the Atlanta suburb of Clarkston. Clarkston residents’ real-life resistance to the immigration of thousands of refugees from around the world over the past 20 years has been widely covered in The New York Times, the best-selling book Outcasts United and elsewhere.
Especially well done in El-Attar’s fictionalized account are scenes between Sasha (Marcie Millard), an inexperienced young resettlement agent assigned to help recent arrivals adjust to their new country, and Nura (Cynthia D. Barker), a new refugee from Somalia. Sasha herself is experiencing a disruptive moment in her life, adjusting (poorly) to a new home, a new town and a new job, and Millard limns the character with masterful strokes of self-deprecating, sometimes nearly self-immolating, humor. There’s a sweetness to her bonding with Nura, who speaks little English and is in vastly different, if at least ostensibly similar, circumstances.
But “Third Country” often leaves such interesting personal interactions for less compelling scenes meant to capture broadly the political and cultural temperature of the community. Such scenes — the town hall meetings that open and close the play, scenes in the mayor’s and resettlement agency offices — often depict adversarial episodes and crises but seldom contain much real drama. Characters seem tense and exasperated but don’t portray the sort of individual idiosyncrasies and foibles of people interacting with one another, as they do in the Sasha-Nura scenes. When we leave that pair’s story behind, we feel that we’re no longer seeing people, but social issues brought to the stage as characters.
It’s a common phenomenon across the arts, I’ve found, that artists who want to deal with important political subject matter — political in the sense of the power relationships between people — often feel that actual electoral politics, social positions and stances must be brought into the frame. I don’t think that is the case at all. In fact, conflicts or arguments that take too direct a form in art can come across as agitprop, even if the position being argued for is a sensible one of community engagement and openness.
What “Third Country” does well is show how forces outside of individual control, especially in Sidington, can exacerbate such conflict. In the play, the federal government decides in which communities refugees are placed. But the city’s institution for resolving community conflicts, City Hall, is dependent upon local elections, not the balancing of refugees’ concerns with those of residents. Tom Thon and Tess Malis Kincaid do a nice job depicting this conflict as the mayor and the experienced resettlement agent respectively. But in the end, they’re not given much to do other than argue with each other.
The fantastic set by Isabel A. and Moriah Curley-Clay looks at first like a simple, plain faux-brick backdrop, but everything opens and folds and slides in really brilliant ways to become a convincing mayor’s office, resettlement agency, grocery store, apartment, town hall and so on.
Ultimately, the choice before Sidington’s residents — whether to be more or less accepting — hardly seems a compellingly dramatic or intriguing one. Matters aren’t helped when the refugees are rendered as cutesy, eager, earnest, super-likable, almost childlike innocents. It’s hard to develop complex feelings about the situation or to evolve richly nuanced sympathies for the different sides.