Pivot Arts presents CAN’T LOOK BACK/MUST LOOK BACK Review- Understanding the Refugee Experience

Sarah Lo with a projected photo from James A. Bowey’s exhibit “When Home Won’t Let You Stay” in Pivot Arts’ world premiere of DON’T LOOK BACK/MUST LOOK BACK. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

What if we had to leave home behind? Imagine that everything we know— friends, family, our language— everything familiar is gone.

DON'T LOOK BACK/MUST LOOK BACK strives to bring understanding that spans cultures and languages as audience members are invited to empathize with refugees now living in Uptown as they bravely share their experiences.

We wait in a bureaucratic building with plain colorless walls until we are handed a form. This is not your traditional storefront theater approach!

(left to right) Christopher Acevedo and Ashlyn Lozano interact in a more subtle, realistic scene. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Then, as we sit in a classroom, overhead images project overwhelming statistics and quotes from refugees, forced to leave everything they know. Afterward, we are guided into an ESL (English as Second Language) course. The charisma, smiles, and endless energy that Christopher Acevedo brings to this production perfectly captures the skillset required of successful ESL instructors.

Acevedo’s ease in the classroom is starkly contrasted as we move to yet another room to be greeted with frantic mechanical movements of modern dance. The transition seems intentionally jarring in a way that challenges and expands our experience as an audience.

(front, l to r) Ashlyn Lozano, Sarah Lo and Christopher Acevedo as powerful projections overtake them. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
(front) Christopher Acevedo with the cast of Pivot Arts’ world premiere of DON’T LOOK BACK/MUST LOOK BACK Photo by Michael Brosilow.
(front, l to r) Ashlyn Lozano and Edward Mawere showcasing the muted, modern costuming by kClare McKellaston Photo by Michael Brosilow.

DON’T LOOK BACK/MUST LOOK BACK includes a smattering of languages, mediums, and modes of expression that seems geared to invigorate audiences to continue political discussions in a new, innovative way. It works. This is an ambitious combination of theater, dance, documentary video, and direct interaction with the audience.

Pivot Arts Immersive Experience

Pivot Arts describes this as an immersive, site-specific performance experience. That’s exactly what it is: an experience. They say, “Pivot Arts develops new work and present performances throughout the year culminating in a multi-arts festival. Their vision is that of a vibrant community where unique collaborations between artists, businesses and organizations lead to the support and creation of innovative performance events.”

This playwright, Tanya Palmer, who is also Director of New Play Development at Goodman and a prolific dramaturg, has given us a moving script that combines deeply personal stories of refugees living in Uptown with universal truths.

Where does pity end and empathy begin?

In this reviewer and playwright’s opinion, the dialogue is evocative without pushing the audience too far. Attempting to represent refugees, whose stories are less often told, is a distinct challenge. Palmer’s considerate style of writing does each story of displacement ample justice. These are not tales begging for sympathy. Instead they are told with open-mindedness and deeper understanding at work.

Delivering the powerful lines in DON’T LOOK BACK/MUST LOOK BACK is likely challenging to the actors. Luckily in this production, each actor provides genuine yet even-handed delivery. There was no need for forced tears or ‘woe is me’ inflection. Each actor gives their character, based on individual refugees, the respect and dignity they deserve without alienating the audience.

Sarah Lo and Lucy Carapetyan integrating movement into an already powerful scene. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Jin Park, Christopher Acevedo, Samantha Beach, Sarah Lo, Phyllis Liu and Lucy Carapetyan line up as the experience begins. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
(left to right) Edward Mawere and Jin Park with a projected photo from James A. Bowey’s exhibit “When Home Won’t Let You Stay” Photo by Michael Brosilow.

DON’T LOOK BACK/MUST LOOK BACK is incredibly current. As we are given yet another form to fill out, news footage of Trump signing an executive order plays in the background. The combination is goose-bump inducing. In this way, DON’T LOOK BACK/MUST LOOK BACK addresses current politics without preaching or speaking at the audience.



This play is recommended for perceptive writing, extremely balanced directing, strategic choreography, creating an experience different than the traditional theater experience.


Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.


Thru  November 19, 2017

Thursdays at  7:30pm
Fridays at 7:30pm
Saturdays at 7:30pm

Runtime: 1 hour 15 minutes, no intermission


$35 - Tickets are currently available at Pivot Arts website.



Begins at Chinese Mutual Aid Association, 1016 W Argyle St, Chicago IL 60640



Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Sharon Krome is a playwright & director based in Chicago.

Share this:

Make a Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *