There is a moment during the play “Cartography” when audience members are asked to turn on their phones and chart on a digital map their own migration stories. Where are they from, and how did they get here?

Wherever the play is presented around the world, the map quickly fills with real-life stories of journeys across deserts and over seas.

“You find people who were born and raised here, they have a history too and a place they come from,” said Malaika Uwamahoro, a Portland-based actress from Rwanda who stars in the touring play. “It’s always interesting to have our audience reflect on that. Movement is a human thing and is something we all do.”

Presented by Portland Ovations at 7 p.m. Thursday at Merrill Auditorium, “Cartography” tells the human story of migration through the actual words of young refugees, presented by actors and actresses who have made long journeys themselves. Born in Rwanda, raised in Uganda and the United States, and living in Maine since 2019, Uwamahoro tells her own personal story in “Cartography,” which debuted at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in early 2019.

“My mother was 19 when she had me, and three months after I was born, we went to Uganda,” said Uwamahoro, 31. “I was raised in Uganda until age 7, and then we moved to the United States.”

She lived on the West Coast while her mother attended school and worked, returned to Rwanda at age 11, and enrolled in the theater department at Fordham University in New York in 2013 with the help of a Rwandan presidential scholarship. After graduating in 2017, she met theater director Kaneza Schaal, who was developing “Cartography” with her creative partner Christopher Myers.

Uwamahoro was cast in the show while it was in development. It has toured around the country and was staged in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, just before the pandemic. The tour is winding down. After Portland, there is just one additional performance, in Vermont.

Uwamahoro is thrilled to perform the play in Maine, among friends and people she knows. She and her husband, filmmaker Christian Kayiteshonga, moved to Portland in 2019 after living in New York and Texas. “I have fallen in love with Maine. It’s gorgeous, and the people are wonderful,” she said. “I am just now getting into the art scene.”

In addition to her work in theater, Uwamahoro writes and performs poetry and does film and commercial work. “I have yet to introduce myself to Portland as an artist in this way, and I am excited to finally invite my community to come to the theater, to see what I do and see what I am all about,” she said.

Migration has been a programming theme of Portland Ovations for at least a decade, said Aimee Petrin, the organization’s executive director. Thursday’s performance is part of Ovations’ ongoing Seeking Resonance series, which connects people, place and culture through artistic expression, and is co-presented with Indigo Arts Alliance.

“Art and migration are completely interwoven in the fact that art is how we hold, share, express and celebrate our home and culture, and migrations are what move art around the world,” Petrin said. ” ‘Cartography’ brings it all together. That is the story on stage. In the past when we have shared stories around migration, it was more in the background. ‘Cartography’ makes it explicit. Instead of a theme running in the background, it is now in the foreground.”

Marcia Minter, co-founder and executive director of Indigo Arts Alliance, said “Cartography” embodies what Seeking Resonance is all about “because the whole piece is literally the voices of diverse people coming from all parts of the globe, particularly those who are migrants and immigrants, who have have been displaced and who have made new homes for themselves in America. That story really says so much about what it means to know home, to leave home and to find home again.”

As part of its partnership with Portland Ovations, Indigo Arts Alliance will host a workshop with some of performers and community members.

Uwamahoro, center, rehearses with the cast of “Cartography” on Wednesday at the Merrill Auditorium. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“Cartography” makes efficient use of technology and inventively integrates lighting and video elements with a stage set that appears simple but is dynamic and flexible, with several moveable boxes, a rubber raft and other visual elements. The play revolves around the five characters, who tell their stories and the stories of others. In addition to Uwamahoro, the cast includes Janice Amaya, who is Salvadoran-American; Noor Hamdi, born to Syrian immigrants; Victoria Nassif, who is Lebanese-American, and Vuyo Sotashe, a native of South Africa.

It is not a play with a beginning, middle and end, but a series of stories, “much like what you experience when you are on a journey, fragments of memory and things that happen when you are traveling,” Uwamahoro said. “Some of the piece takes place in an immigration waiting room, and other scenes are the stories of characters on their journey, the stories they remember.”

Reza Jalali, executive director of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, said stories about the “displacement of innocents” are both timely and ancient, local and universal. “People crossing borders in search of safety and better economic opportunity started thousands of years ago,” he said.

A dozen or so refugees from Afghanistan had arrived in Maine by late October, with more to come, he said, and there are “a few hundred” asylum-seekers living Portland hotels, awaiting the opportunity for a better life.

“How can we welcome them, and how can we make the best argument that Maine needs them? With an ongoing labor shortage, we need young, motivated people who are willing to risk their lives to be here,” Jalali said.

“It’s important to have community members tell each other their stories, in order to make a community work together. Any effort to tell stories of origin – stories about how we got to Maine, whether 200 years ago or 20 years ago or two days ago – that is how you create a sense a community and a better understanding of who we are.”


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