City Theatre to Premiere Free, Pittsburgh-Centric Show Based on Refugee Experiences

“The Rivers Don’t Know” explores the real-life experiences of local immigrants.
Rivers Program Cover

COURTESY CITY THEATRE

What does it mean to be an immigrant, or a Pittsburgher? What makes someone a member of the community? Who gets to decide the answer to these questions? 

City Theatre will explore these subjects and more in its new play “The Rivers Don’t Know,” which premieres Friday, Sept. 10 at Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse. The production will run from Sept. 10 to 19 to coincide with the nonprofit organization Welcoming America’s “Welcoming Week,” which aims to bring together refugees, immigrants and other residents to affirm the importance of inclusive spaces.

To develop “The Rivers Don’t Know,” which weaves together stories about a Somali family, a 1940s steelworker, and a class of ESL students all exploring what it means to call Pittsburgh home, playwright James McManus and director Michael John Garcés interviewed immigrants and refugees in Pittsburgh. They conducted numerous story circles, an eight-step screenplay-writing technique in which artists start with a protagonist and explore questions about their personality, needs and goals to develop a plot.

“Writing a play where the words are not strictly from my imagination but from people who sat across from me feels like a sacred trust,” McManus says. “I can conjure the faces and feel the words of those who shared difficult and joyous moments from their lives about the struggles and triumphs of being an immigrant or refugee in a new city. I feel a weight to get it right because that feels to me what every person and every community deserves.”

Clare Drobot, one of the co-artistic directors of the play, says it exemplifies City Theatre’s values as a company and member of the community.

“It felt like there was a stark contrast in the way [people] viewed the generations of immigrants who built the steel industry in Pittsburgh and current attitudes toward immigration and refugee populations,” Drobot says. “It felt like there were real stories to be told there.

“For me, it’s also deeply personal. My dad was born in Poland, as were my grandparents, and this is something that means a lot to me.”

Drobot, along with McManus, Garcés, and the rest of the production team, also engaged with several organizations, such as the Alliance for Refugee Youth Support and Education (ARYSE), to connect with local immigrants.

“It’s really emotional because you’re talking about personal journeys,” Drobot says. “We did a story circle with a number of ARYSE students and had a conversation about … all of these things that are universal to the teenage experience but also deeply personal. There are a number of times when you’re hosting a story circle or in the development process and trying to hold back tears.”

One of the most memorable story circles Drobot participated in was with ESL students.

“We worked a lot with Literacy Pittsburgh and spent a number of times in ESL classes,” Drobot says. “You’d have different folks explaining their relationship to English, how they moved to Pittsburgh, how the city feels like home, the things that they miss.”

The play is part of the Allegheny Regional Asset District’s annual RADical Days program, which was created to give thanks to the public with free shows, tours, performances, and family-friendly activities in the city. 

Prior registration is required due to capacity constraints; reservations can be made online or by calling the box office at 412/392-8000. Guests will be required to wear masks at all times and provide the Pittsburgh Playhouse with proof of vaccination. Further information about COVID-19 mitigation policies is available on the Playhouse’s website.

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