Talking to Jennifer Chase is like trying to pin the wind. The writer, playwright, singer and teacher seems always to be in motion, moving through time and space in multiple dimensions—like something Dali might paint. Maybe it is because with her long blond dreadlocks, cat-eye glasses and sweeping multi-layer printed panel dresses she seems to expand and contract, reacting to ideas and situations with action, music and wit.
Chase’s newest project, Renunciant, has been over a decade in the making. A solo show that showcases Chase’s range of storytelling abilities, the piece encapsulates some of the personal stories of survival that her English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) students, refugees would tell her.
“One assumes that these people had just left, say, south Sudan, but in the case of one student, he had been out of his country [and trying to get to America] for ten years,” said Chase. “He had to cross the desert, get to Lybia, then on to Tunisia and Germany before he was able to make it here legally.”
In 2003 when Chase began teaching, she said that her main goal was to create a safe place for her students. “How well will they learn English if they don’t trust the people they are studying with,” she asked rhetorically.
She also said that the trust-building she aimed for in the classroom helped many of her students deal with the loneliness that comes with living in a place where you know no one and life is hard, “…and they don’t feel like they are justified, like they have the right to complain,” she said of people who still have ties to a homeland, but because they “made it out” they feel as if grousing about their situation—even if they work long hours and take multiple busses to get through their days—feels like it devalues the sacrifices family and friends made to help them get here.
“What was really cool,” recalled Chase, “was that they started to gravitate towards one another,” and in the process, over the course of the ESOL class, they began to trust her.
Of the stories that Chase is now guardian to, she verbally underscored the gravity—with an almost reverential tone in her voice—with which she undertakes her performance. “I was very worried about portraying people as one-dimensional, but Babs [actor/director Barbara Colciello] drilled me, she said: ‘you tell your stories.’ She convinced me I have to take risks.”
When asked, how her students came to tell her these stories she said, “I don’t pry, and they’re not running out to talk about the horrors they’ve been through. Our [classroom] activities revolve around a level playing field, and then they know they can trust me.”
Proceeds from --which takes its name from the renunciation required by the oath immigrants take for naturalization—will go towards buying bus passes, but more important, “my hope is that people will be more willing to take the risk of saying ‘hello’ to someone from another place. Because if it’s too hard–or seems to be—it’s easier to ignore. But really, we’re the ones who lose,” said Chase.
Renunciant is staged 7:30 p.m. Sept. 15 and 16 at Bab’s Lab @ CoRK Arts District North, 603 King St., Riverside; tickets $15 advance, $20 day of; artful.ly/store/events/13067.