Given some current attitudes, it was, as Yogi Berra famously said, “like deja vu all over again” when, in giving the Maine premiere of her one-woman performance called “Checkered Floors” at the Old Port Playhouse on Wednesday night, Cheryl Hamilton read from a 2002 letter addressed to the Somali community by the mayor of Lewiston.

That letter asked local Somali leaders to “help reduce the stress on our limited resources and our generosity” by discouraging further Somali migration to the area.

That official request created quite an uproar at the time because of its focus on one particular group. And Hamilton, who was then a refugee resettlement specialist in Lewiston, received a lot of media attention in speaking out for tolerance and understanding. That ultimately led her toward a career delivering workshops on refugee resettlement throughout the country.

In recent years, with the encouragement of director James Bunzli, she has incorporated her experiences in Lewiston with some other deeply personal remembrances into this 80-minute theater piece. It is alternately heartwarming and heart-rending but is most likely to be thought of as uplifting by anyone who is trying to maintain a positive attitude while grappling with the challenges of a diverse world.

Hamilton, or at least the Hamilton of this piece, started out as an “Up With People” wannabe but soon discovered that life included, for her particularly, some incredible downs. Sexual assault and suicide are the hard-edged experiences that she weaves into her story of her growing understanding of the trauma that many refugees have known in their journey from old to new homes.

Whether it’s through describing her experiences waiting with a Somali woman to hear the angry voices outside her apartment door, sitting on a ledge with a man about to jump to his death or trying to find a way for herself and her family to understand the actions of a rapist, Hamilton tries to suggest that life is not all black and white, though sometimes the lines are sharply drawn and hard to overcome.

There are dashes of humor and acts of kindness related with an unpretentious charm and an eye for cultural detail that add greatly to Hamilton’s message about maintaining an enlightened optimism rooted in a belief in the power of understanding and a sincerely felt concern for others.

“Checkered Floors” will be performed at the Frontier in Brunswick later this month.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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