Klan veteran and Kurdish immigrant form unlikely alliance

Former Klansman Chris Buckley (left) shares a stage with Syrian refugee Heval Kelli in a scene from Refuge. (Photos by Tomesha Foxio)

By Richard Ades

Refuge is the story of the healing that takes place when a former Ku Klux Klan member is befriended by a Muslim refugee.

That’s the way the documentary is billed, at least, though the description is a bit misleading. For one thing, the two men don’t actually meet until late in the film, by which time much of the healing has already taken place.

The former Klan member is Chris Buckley, an Army veteran who lives in LaFayette, Ga., with his wife and two small children. Chris enlisted in the military after 9/11, and his subsequent years of overseas combat duty only added to the hatred and distrust he felt toward Muslims.

More broadly, his ongoing struggle to support his family made him susceptible to the appeal of White nationalism, which encouraged him to blame his problems on people of color, immigrants and other convenient scapegoats. Hence, Chris joined the Klan and began throwing himself into the hate group’s rituals and ideology.

By the time we meet him, however, Chris has left the Klan for reasons that aren’t immediately revealed. He claims he’s trying to put his hatred behind him, though he makes an exception in the case of the religion he blames for his many wartime injuries and for the death of a beloved Army buddy.

Meanwhile, directors Erin Bernhardt and Din Blankenship also introduce us to Heval Kelli, a Muslim Kurd who arrived in the U.S. after his family was forced to flee their native Syria. A cardiologist, Heval lives with his aging parents in Clarkston, a Georgia town two hours away from LaFayette by car—and light years away in terms of environment.

“Mama Amina” works to make newcomers feel at home in the multiethnic community of Clarkston, Ga.

For decades, Clarkston has accepted refugees from various parts of the world, resulting in a community that comprises a multitude of nationalities, languages and religions. All are made to feel welcome thanks to the efforts of warm-hearted residents such as 89-year-old “Mama Amina,” a tireless volunteer.

Chris and Heval eventually meet, of course, though it takes some doing on the part of others to bring it about. In particular, it takes the efforts of Melissa, Chris’s wife, who has her own reasons for hating racism and who emerges as one of the film’s real heroes.

As a record of a Chris’s conversion from a vicious bigot to someone who ends up fighting bigotry, Refuge is sometimes moving, though not quite as moving as it could be. That’s because his transformation largely takes place when the camera isn’t rolling. We see him talking about his change of heart, but we don’t see it actually happening.

But that’s a minor weakness, and besides, the documentary has plenty of other attributes. Among them are the scenes in Clarkston, where rampant displays of kindness and acceptance offer a welcome break from the divisiveness that characterizes much of modern society.

The atmosphere is so intoxicating that not even the arrival of an anti-immigrant gubernatorial candidate and his so-called “deportation bus” can spoil the mood. The candidate apparently realizes that as, after accepting a welcoming piece of baclava, he takes his leave.

If only hatred and bigotry could always be turned away that easily.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Refuge opens March 24 at select theaters and through VOD outlets.

Sweet music, jarring language and a timeless morality tale

Big River

By Richard Ades

Standing Room Only nearly lived up to its name Friday, as its evening performance of Big River filled most of the seats in CPAC’s Van Fleet Theatre. Hopefully, that means there’s a market for the ambitious programming the troupe has been tackling of late.

Or maybe it simply means people have an undying love for the tale whose source material is often considered the Great American Novel: Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Adapted by William Hauptman (book) and Roger Miller (music and lyrics), the Tony-winning musical again sends its scruffy title character and a runaway slave named Jim down the Mississippi on their respective quests for adventure and freedom.

One of the gutsiest things about SRO’s production is also the reason parents might want to prepare their youngest children for the experience. Like Twain’s novel, but unlike an expurgated version I saw many years ago, it allows characters to spout the most racist term in the American vocabulary. The word can sound jarring to modern ears, but it’s probably necessary. That’s because the story depends on a frank portrait of 19th century attitudes to underscore its central lesson.

Huck begins the tale as a rebellious lad who nonetheless accepts the morality of his pre-Civil War era when it comes to the subjugation of black Americans. Indeed, he’s so convinced slavery is a holy institution that he worries he’ll go to hell if he helps Jim escape. Both the novel and the musical are most moving when they show the boy reassessing his position after getting to know Jim as a human being.

Miller’s songs are sometimes stirring but mostly laid-back and pleasant, especially when accompanied by SRO’s old-timey quintet. Performing under music director Chipper Snow, it’s dominated by Ted Reich’s wistful harmonica and Jordan Shear’s lively fiddle.

As for the vocals, there are a few pitchy moments, but most cast members are up to the challenge. That’s especially true of the two male leads. Caleb Baker (as Huck) and Brandon Buchanan (as Jim) harmonize beautifully on duets such as Muddy Water and Worlds Apart.

Acting-wise, their styles are a bit less harmonious. Though Buchanan’s Jim reflects the tension and fears of a man determined to float his way to freedom, Baker’s Huck is unrelentingly calm. He seems unruffled whether he’s fighting off a knife attack or trying to avoid being tarred and feathered by angry townsfolk.

Baker’s physical appearance—he’s taller and huskier than most of the “adults” around him—also undercuts his portrayal of the youth. But that would be less of a problem if he acted more like a frightened teen rather than a laconic good ol’ boy.

Several of the supporting players make indelible impressions under Dee Shepherd’s easy-going direction.

John Feather is dignified and decent as Judge Thatcher, then abandons both dignity and decency to play the self-described King, a con artist who hitches a ride on Huck and Jim’s raft. Greg Zunkewicz is equally conniving as the King’s companion, the Duke, but he sometimes needed to project more at the performance I attended.

Funniest of all is Thor Collard as Huck’s drunken Pap, especially when he’s railing musically against the Gov’ment. Sweetest of all is Ashton Brammer as Mary Jane, who wins Huck’s heart when she becomes the victim of a scheme hatched by the King and the Duke.

As Huck’s friend Tom Sawyer, Anthony Guerrini gets across the lad’s addiction to romantic adventures. It’s not his fault that Tom becomes a distraction late in the story. His 11th-hour reappearance is the only instance in which Twain’s Great American Novel becomes a little less than great.

Even more than SRO’s recently staged Sweeney Todd, Big River is presented in a bare-bones manner. Designed by Angela Barch, some of the costumes are only vaguely 1840-ish, while the “scenery” consists mainly of a footlocker and a large box.

But none of that matters when the production is at its best, doling out sweet music along with a morality tale that retains its power 131 years after it first pricked the conscience of America.

Standing Room Only Theatre will present Big River through May 7 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $21, $18 seniors (55-plus), $16 members, $12 students. 614-258-9495 or srotheatre.org.