PORTLAND — For Cheryl Hamilton, checkered floors are much more than tiles on the ground.
The floor represents the patchwork of refugees and natives in the Lewiston-Auburn neighborhoods where she worked during the beginning of the Somali migration to the area.
It represents the yin and yang of the sometimes beautiful, sometimes trying juxtapositions she discovered as an idealistic college graduate returning to her hometown in the midst of the immigration.
It represents her close friendship with a Somali immigrant named Mohamed, with whom she worked, and the physical color differences that sometimes define human relationships — something she thinks should be, can be, much more gray.
But in a more literal sense, it’s the design of the tile on the floor where she was raped in Auburn not long after her return in 2001.
Hamilton blends all this in a one-woman play, “Checkered Floors,” which opens at the Old Port Playhouse on Jan. 5 for a five-show run, then heads to Brunswick to the Frontier Cafe on Jan. 25 for three shows.
Despite the heavy subject matter, she promises the play is funny.
“I’m trying to talk about issues in this show that we’re not comfortable talking about: racism and sexual assault,” Hamilton said. “But I’m doing it with humility.”
Hamilton has a bright, full smile and a casual demeanor, so it’s easy to see how, on stage, her passion and wry wit cut through to make a challenging story more easily accessible.
Hamilton graduated from Clark University in 2001 with a degree in international relations and planned to move to Africa. But when her mother, who lives in Auburn, read her senior thesis on refugee resettlement and community education, she suggested Hamilton consider coming back to Auburn.
“I expected to go overseas,” she said. “Instead, the refugees came to me.”
Hamilton remembers the day a hate group came to Lewiston-Auburn to protest the growing refugee population in the area.
“One of the Somali elders walked across the street to (the protest) leader and said, ‘Hello. I hear you hate me.’ It was such a powerful moment,” she said.
Hamilton has many stories about the people she worked with, including a woman she believes was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who thought she heard voices through her walls. She said even her own mother asked how she could help to make the Somali women she encountered at the grocery store feel more welcome without coming across as weird.
It was those experiences, she said, that helped her get through a painful rape trial and its eventual outcome — her rapist received a $500 fine and probation.
“At one point, I moderated a discussion between the neighbors and a group of Somali women. One woman asked them ‘After all you’ve been through, how do you get up in the morning?'” Hamilton said. “They just said ‘we have to.'”
She said she felt privileged to work with the immigrants, and that the knowledge of all they had survived and the strength they still had gave her strength to deal with the challenges in her own life.
“They’re fun, funny and vibrant. Being around them lifted my spirits,” she said. “My rape was bad, but not what these women went through. It made me think, OK, we’re all going to be fine.”
Eventually, in 2008, Hamilton left Maine to pursue her career in refugee relations in Baltimore. That was where she met director James Bunzli after taking a play-writing class. She wrote 20 minutes of what would eventually become “Checkered Floors,” and, she said, Bunzli encouraged her to finish it.
So she did, then entered it into the Emerging Artist Theater’s “One Woman Standing” play festival in New York City. The play was chosen to open the festival.
Since then, she has performed in many states, but never in Maine.
When she moved back to the area for a job in Portland, she decided she wanted to bring the play back to its state of origin.
“Outside of Maine, everyone talks about Lewiston-Auburn. People are curious about what happened there and how things are now,” she said. “Now I really want to focus on Maine. Lewiston-Auburn should be really proud.”
She said she’s thrilled to be back in Maine and is starting her own organization in Auburn to focus on the immigrant population and community relations.
“I’m trying not to be black and white about it,” she said. “We stumble. That’s real. But in the end, we’re all just trying to live our lives as best we can.”
Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Cheryl Hamilton, writer, creator and star of the one-woman show, “Checkered Floors,” is taking the play about the Somali migration to Lewiston-Auburn and her role in the refugee resettlment process to Maine audiences after performing to critical acclaim around the country. Performances at the Old Port Playhouse in Portland are Jan. 5 and 6 at 7 p.m., Jan. 7 and 8 at 8 p.m. and Jan. 9 at 2 p.m.; performances at the Frontier Cafe in Brunswick are Jan. 26 and 27 at 7 p.m. and Jan. 28 at 2 p.m.