Peninsula Players Theatre presents a reading of “Go Save Your Life” by Nasir Bin Zakaria, as told to Laura Toffenetti Monday, February 5 at 7 p.m. at Björklunden, located at 7590 Boynton Lane, Baileys Harbor. “Go Save Your Life” is produced with support and in coordination with Door County Reads and its exploration of “The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir” by Kao Kalia Yang. Join the Players reading of Nasir Bin Zakaria’s harrowing and inspiring story as a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. The cast, director and author will host a post-reading discussion. Admission is free.
“Go Save Your Life” shares Nasir ’s journey from the jungles of Myanmar to his new home in Chicago, Illinois. Featured in the play reading are actors Rom Barkhordar, as several men; Cheryl Hamada, as multiple women; and Demetrios E. Troy as Nasir. They are under the direction of Peninsula Players Artistic Director Greg Vinkler, who is thrilled to bring Nasir’s voice and story to Door County audiences.
“After I heard from Door County Reads that their 2018 book selection was ‘The Latehomecomer,’ I read the book and began to think about plays that might tie into that subject matter in a meaningful way,” Vinkler said. “It wasn’t long before I remembered conversations I’d had with my friend Steven Pringle, with whom I’d done a show at Chicago Shakespeare Theater earlier in the year. I recalled that he had spoken very emotionally of working with refugees in Chicago alongside his wife.
“I contacted him about getting some ideas and he obligingly gave me a couple. One was an Iraqi story which, while very interesting, didn’t seem quite appropriate, but the other was a story that, after reading, I felt perfectly complemented the journey that was laid out in ‘The Latehomecomer.’
“Laura Toffenetti, Steven’s wife and a playwright, had written a piece called ‘Go Save Your Life.’ It is the amazing story of Nasir Bin Zakaria, the founder of the refugee center where they volunteer. While Nasir is a Rohingyan refugee from Myanmar and Kao Yang’s book is about Hmong refugees from Laos, the stories so parallel each other that the Door County Library felt it to be a very worthwhile addition to their programming around the book. I think the piece helps personalize and make incredibly human with one man’s story the plight of so many peoples and cultures from that area and around the world that suffer from government indifference and even malign hatred.”
Nasir Bin Zakaria was from nowhere. In 1962, a new regime took power in Myanmar, and those of the Rohingya culture were persecuted and deprived of the most fundamental form of identity – citizenship – despite having lived in the country for several generations.
As Nasir walked to school, soldiers would taunt and harass him. At school, he was bullied, insulted with racial slurs and beaten by older boys. One day, when Nasir was a 14-year-old boy, militants, with weapons in-hand, insisted he not go to school. He was kidnapped and forced to work in their camp. Nasir spent a terrifying night in the jungle with the militants before escaping to Malaysia. He never saw his parents again.
He spent nearly two decades living undocumented in Malaysia working at various construction jobs. Eventually, he applied for citizenship to the United States and, once approved, he finally belonged somewhere.
Today Nasir, his wife and children are among the 1,000 Rohingya refugees who now call Chicago home. According to the U.S. Department of State, this group makes up nearly one-fifth of the Rohingya refugees who have resettled across the United States since 2010.
Nasir saw a need for a place where incoming Rohingya refugees could study English and become familiar with American society. He took a one-month leave from his full-time job as a dishwasher at a casino to focus on the development of the community center he now manages.
“If I quit my job, it doesn’t matter. If I lose the center, these 1,000 people will suffer,” he said to a Chicago Tribune reporter in April of 2016. Toffenetti is a retired teacher who volunteers at the center and was inspired to tell this story.
“Nasir’s story was fascinating to me,” Toffenetti said. “I wanted to get it down on paper since he did not have the literacy to write it himself. All their stories of survival deserve to be recorded as proof of their strength and courage in the face of hate.”
Vinkler has cast three actors to portray the various characters in this very intimate and poignant first-person narrative. Barkhordar was featured in the 2016 play reading of “The Who and The What” while Hamada and Troy are new to Peninsula Players audiences.
Barkhordar is a Chicago stage veteran whose credits include “The Elephant Man” at Steppenwolf Theatre; “Around the World in 80 Days” at Lookingglass Theatre; and “In a Garden” with A Red Orchid Theatre for which he received a Jeff nomination for Best Actor. He has worked at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Lifeline Theatre, Writers Theatre and many more.
Hamada is a Chicago-based, Joseph Jefferson award-winning actress whose stage credits include TimeLine Theatre Company, Rasaka Theatre, Silk Road Rising, Lookingglass Theatre Company, Organic Theatre, Victory Gardens Theater and Goodman Theatre. Her film credits include “About Schmidt,” “The Dilemma,” “Nothing Like the Holidays,” “Above the Law” and “Chain Reaction.” Her television credits include hosting the HGTV series “Extreme Homes” for four seasons and one season of WTTW’s “Your Chicago Kitchen.” She has also appeared in “Boss,” “Early Edition,” “Unsolved Mysteries,” “Mind Games,” “The Chicago Code,” “Chicago Hope,” “Chicago Story” and “Chicago Med.”
Troy’s Door County stage credits include “Julius Caesar,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Twelfth Night” and “The Heart of Robin Hood” at Door Shakespeare. Among his regional credits are Riverside Shakespeare, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Syracuse Stage, Utah Shakespeare, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Northlight Theatre and the Goodman Theatre. His television and film credits include “Chicago Fire,” “Mob Doctor,” “The Year that Changed Us,” “The King,” “Two Thieves” and “Jobless.”
Toffenetti is a playwright, lyricist, essayist and volunteer at the Rohingya Cultural Center. She majored in Lithography at the University of Illinois, which evolved into a life of writing. In 1985 Toffenetti collaborated with five women to create the play “Going to See the Elephant.” It was honored as Best Play by Drama Logue, Los Angeles Reader and the International PEN. It was also nominated for the Los Angeles Drama Critic’s Circle Award and listed in the Los Angeles Times Best Bets. Her other works include “Without A Parachute,” “Blue Heron, 1945” and “Sinkhole.” She has written the book and lyrics for “Tailor!,” “Edna the Stomper” and “Transylvania Bed And Breakfast, Miami” with composer Jan Jungden. She spent 30 years teaching elementary students in Los Angeles and Connecticut and her small step into volunteering turned into a fulltime adventure helping the wonderful Rohingya people navigate the challenges of living in Chicago.
Vinkler has directed and performed in previous play readings as well as in numerous Peninsula Players’ productions including “The Actuary,” “Chapatti,” “Alabama Story,” “A Real Lulu,” “Butler,” “Amadeus,” and “Opus.” He has also performed in more than 25 productions at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre including last year’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”
“Go Save Your Life” is the first of three readings of The Play’s the Thing, a winter series of play readings produced by Peninsula Players Theatre. Phone the Peninsula Players at 920-868-3287 for information on the reading of “Go Save Your Life,” at Björklunden 7p.m., Monday, February, 5. Admission is free, general seating available.
The Play’s the Thing is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin, as well as generous grants from Door County Medical Center and Friends of Door County Libraries.
Door County Reads is in its eighth year, having grown out of the Library/Players partnership to bring The Big Read to Door County for three years. A full listing of events is available at www.doorcountyreads.org.
The Play’s the Thing 2018 series also includes “A Trick of the Light,” a new comedy by Minneapolis-based playwright Peter Moore on Monday, March 5 and “A Fine Bright Day Today,” by British playwright Philip Goulding on Monday, April 2.
Peninsula Players Theatre is America’s Oldest Professional Resident Summer Theatre. The Play’s the Thing is part of the Players’ continuing winter outreach programming, presenting professional play readings for the public. Learn more about Peninsula Players at www.peninsulaplayers.com.