It is thrilling to watch Kseniya Simonova get a golden buzzer on America’s Got Talent: The Champions in front of millions of viewers.
And it is a deep honour to have the continued backing of the National Endowment for the Arts,.
But beyond technical artistry this affirms why we’d choose to invest so much time researching and sharing these stories in the first place.
Stories that, after all, come from a distant time and place.
“So what?! Why bother?”
Glad you asked.
We know that many will come for the shear visceral magic of experiencing sand artist Kseniya Simonova’s live sand stories, together with cinematographic music and radio theatre-style narration.
This is certainly enough, and if it stopped there, we’d already be grateful.
And also this:
These tales, the history, the communities with which we engage through The Forgotten Kingdom have an urgent relevance to us, here, now.
We tell them because they matter.
Why These Stories Matter Now
The distance of time and place can have a dulling effect on our knowledge of history. For example, many today understand the rise of authoritarianism intellectually, from textbooks. But, especially in the US, most people no longer remember these events in a visceral, personal sense. We don’t understand what the unraveling of democracy can feel like, what it can do to a nation, to communities.
We also view these histories from hindsight. We know how the story ends, understand the moral implications of terms like “fascism.” We forget that for those living through these events, the end was far from certain, the day-to-day far more complex and ambiguous. For example, many thought fascism was indeed moral and just. In the same Sephardi enclaves from which these songs we sing emerged, some who adopted fascism in the pursuit of a better tomorrow were themselves Jewish.
Stories, combined with the direct emotional language of music and evocative visuals, can do what lectures and books rarely can: They add living colour to detached black-and-white, affording us a more intimate human connection. The resulting empathy matters because it informs the voices we consider and the questions we ask as we struggle with who is American and who should have a place among us — racially, sexually, religiously; as we grapple with the dismantling of democratic guardrails and tribal fragmentation; as we steel ourselves to meet our moment with integrity and tenderness.
Themes Addressed in The Forgotten Kingdom – Sand Stories
This show tells an important story. Not because it is Sephardic or Mediterranean, but because, together with the history it illuminates, it present themes that touch raw nerves.
These include issues of:
• Immigration — Sephardic communities were communities of immigrants. They offer a case study of the ways immigrants integrated into the fabric of their new society while simultaneously preserving group identity. These communities present models of pluralistic, inter-ethnic cooperation, making their demise in WWII all-the-more poignant.
The story of Ladino mirrors experiences that I, and most of the artists in the Ensemble, live personally, as an immigrant to the US. Not only have we changed because we’re in new homes, but our homes have also changed because we’re in them.
• Women’s Voices — The Forgotten Kingdom is comprised of late 19th/early 20th-century Sephardic women’s songs that, on the one hand, offer glimpses of the ways women figured in the stories and, on the other, shed light on the role of the women who sang these songs as cultural transmitters and gate-keepers. These topics are covered in depth in some of the educational programs developed around the show.
The show’s story centers on a strong female protagonist. Sofia Tosello (Argentina) and Kseniya Simonova (Ukraine) add a powerful living dimension to the representation of women’s voices.
• Rise of Authoritarianism / Demise of Democratic Norms — Glimpsing this history from the perspectives of those living through it stirs potent questions. Years from now, when we look back on the way our own dots connect, in what ways will our story appear similar? In what ways is it fundamentally different?
• Refugee issues — The show includes scenes from the Greek 1917 refugee crisis, images of which are strikingly similar to images of Syrian refugees a century later. The destruction of Sephardi communities itself initiated a major refugee crisis.
• The Distortion of Traditional Cultures — What responsibilities and challenges do artists face when working with traditional material — especially from endangered cultures? How can such artists safeguard against unwittingly distorting the very traditions they seek to preserve? These dilemmas are basis for associated educational engagement.