Ash is dying. Confined to a tiny bedroom, the girl can only look at the world she would like to visit.
But through her window, she strikes up conversations with passing strangers — and her innocent optimism changes them each in some way.
Olympus High School student Alexis Bitner was surprised to learn she had been cast as Ash for Plan-B Theatre Company’s Aug. 24-26 presentation of “The Post Office.”
“I put my phone down and said, ‘Mom, Mom, I think I’m dreaming,’” Bitner recalled. “It’s just an honor that they felt like I was enough of a fit to embody the whole spirit of this character.”
Bitner is one of 12 Granite District high school students who spent their summer working on and rehearsing the production, an adaptation of a 1912 play by Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore was born in Calcutta, British India, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.
In the original, an isolated and dying boy named Amal is entranced by the possibilities of a post office being built in his rural neighborhood. He finds joy in each moment, and is portrayed as moving on after death with hope.
Irish poet William Butler Yeats translated the play into English in 1913, and it was performed by the Irish Theatre in London. It was later performed during World War II in concentration camps in Germany, as a radio broadcast in France, and for orphaned children.
Playwright Melissa Leilani Larson created a more accessible stage play for contemporary audiences, but she did not change the child’s fate.
Her story is about how Ash “is able to deal with things on her own when she’s left to her own devices. It’s about the power of positivity and power of hope,” Larson said.
The original has “become a beacon for people,” she said, “… the way it’s been performed in really wretched circumstances to buoy people up.”
And the production itself will be a force for good, with ticket sales matched by donors to support refugees and a related fundraiser held in connection with the United Nations Civil Society Conference, Aug. 26-28 in Salt Lake City.
A play with power
Deb Sawyer, president of the Utah nonprofit Ghandi Alliance for Peace, came up with the idea of staging “The Post Office” to raise awareness of refugees’ needs and fundraise for them in a nontraditional way.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., she worried about America’s response and wanted to be “engaged in doing something healing for Afghanistan,” she said. “Then after the election in 2016 there was the same thought that we had to do something nurturing with respect to refugees.”
She read a book about Janusz Korczak, a pediatrician who worked in an orphanage during the Nazi occupation of Poland. To give the children hope and entertainment — and to help gently prepare them to possibly face death — he produced “The Post Office,” Sawyer said. It also served as a fundraiser for orphanages.
The play has had staying power but is not widely known. Larson said she likes to find such stories and reinterpret them in an interesting way.
Tagore’s characters are portrayed as 12 Bengali men — a cast she wanted to change while honoring the original fable and keeping its symbolism.
Larson tries to create strong roles for women, she said. She didn’t want it set it in a particular place or time, but wanted it to feel relatable. She decided the three main characters would identify as female or nonbinary, and the other roles would be gender neutral, so whoever was best for the role could be cast.
“We should be doing theater this way. It should be open and shouldn’t be determined by race or class or gender except in very, very specific situations,” Larson said.
Though the play does not deal directly with refugees, Larson believes its universal theme of hope applies to today’s refugees and immigrants in this country.
Telling refugees’ stories
One goal of the production was incorporating refugee students; many refugee and immigrant children attend classes in the Granite School District.
Adam Wilkins, the play’s director and a theater teacher at Cottonwood High School, brought in students from the refugee club to help, from set design to acting.
“I feel art has a responsibility to reflect times, reflect culture, to challenge our communities and educate,” Wilkins said. “... And maybe that can bleed into … giving us thoughts and feelings that we may not have had before.”
Cottonwood High student Jevahjire France, cast as the Herald, is an immigrant from Haiti who came to the U.S. with his family three years ago.
“... Nobody would like to leave their homes,” he said. “If anyone migrates to another country, that means that they either do not feel safe or they want a better life for their kids.”
This is France’s first acting role, and he was nervous. But, he said, “There is a quote that says, ‘Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.’ So it kind of boosted my self-confidence [to] say, like, ‘OK, I’m not going to limit myself, I can go and explore the other areas.’”
France has competed on Cottonwood’s robotics team, The Underdogs. The team, made up primarily of refugees, built a robot from scratch and competed at a national robotics competition last April.
Bitner, in the lead role, hopes audiences come away with the message that destructive forces of war reach beyond soldiers to children, much like the illness that afflicts the girl she portrays.
“Often when [refugees] come and seek asylum and they come to get help, they’re put in their own little cage,” she said.
“I want people to see that they have their own stories and they’re just like us,” she said. Caging or rejecting refugees, she said, will mean those who yearn for freedom “just aren’t able to reach it.”
SEEING ‘THE POST OFFICE’
Plan-B Theatre Company’s “The Post Office,” adapted from Rabindranath Tagore’s fable, will be performed by Granite School District high school students.
Where • Leona Wagner Black Box Theatre, Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City
When • Saturday through Monday Aug. 24–26, 4 p.m and 7 p.m.
Tickets • $10 available through 801-355-2787 (ARTS) and planbtheatre.org/postoffice
Schedule • Online at planbtheatre.org/postoffice
DOING GOOD WITH ‘THE POST OFFICE’
The amount of each ticket sale for “The Post Office” will be matched by the Telemachus Fund in Salt Lake City, and again through the Educate a Child Fund of Her Highness Moza Bint Nassar of Qatar.
All proceeds from ticket sales will support refugee education at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, established in 1991 for children fleeing war in Sudan, including the so-called Lost Boys, said Jerry Rapier, artistic director of Plan-B Theatre Company.
“If you buy a $10 ticket to this play, it will end up equaling $40 of support,” Rapier said. “But what I’ve also been saying is every hundred dollars becomes $400.”
The United Nations Association of Utah also is a partner, and will be fundraising with the Adopt-A-Future program affiliated with the United Nations. Performances are scheduled during the United Nations Civil Society Conference Aug. 26-28 in Salt Lake City.
Coverage of downtown Salt Lake City arts groups is supported by a grant from The Blocks, a cultural initiative of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County.