The Immigrants’ Theatre Project

I ask a friend of mine,- an actress,’ child of immigrants and a keen fan of the Immigrants’ Theatre Project, to summarize the value of cultural theater. This, in sum, is what she tells me. There are some stories that are more worth telling than others. There is that breed of timeless story that outdoes geography and time, relying on more ineffable stuff for its value no matter what the times are. Then there are those stories that are all about the times in which we find ourselves, stories without which we could not navigate our times. These are the stories that have been throw up by the forces of geography and time as the collide at the interstices of politics, culture and the unpredictable. We are, if nothing else, storytellers. Life when it breaks down or takes a sudden shift in another direction works a disjunction in our storytelling, a sudden failing away of the story. Theatre offers us the opportunity to make good on that disjunction, to regain our narrative thread in a way that makes the world start to come together again. Coop member Marcy Arlin has known this since 1988, when she first placed an ad in a local newspaper I soliciting recent immigrants interested in creating theatre from their own lives. Marcy wanted to explore and dismantle stereotypes by telling personal stories that revealed something honest and true about each ethnicity. Marcy is not an immigrant herself. But somewhere between her initial plans to be an anthropologist, which were parlayed into drama when she wasn’t watching, and living in Brooklyn, where she came into contact with so many latter-day’ immigrants, she came to realize the centrality of the immigrant’s story to the New York and, indeed, the American experience. When you meet Marcy Arlin, you suddenly realize that there are so many things you want to discuss with her, almost at the same time as you realize that your quest is suddenly all over the map. You can’t help yourself. She is just so good at teasing out the nuances of being an immigrant, the tensions that grow from finding yourself somewhere else. At once, it is the most sensible, practical way for people-to outdo the forces that compelled their decision to emigrate in the first place, and yet anyone’s most improbable undertaking. She talks about a recent play she put on with Israeli and Palestinian actors. She talks about how immigrants have great currency now, though they do not always enjoy the public’s interest. SHIFTING SYMPATHIES It is these shifts in’ public sympathy that interest Marcy: But she has an elastic definition of immigrants. While the traditional immigrant is propelled by economic or political motives, many more do not strictly fit that category, immigrating often for purely personal reasons. She talks of the emotional baggage that comes with immigration-dispossession, outsiderliness and alienation. Immigrants are so defined by, yet so profoundly separated from their host culture, a culture where they often suffer little illusion of welcome as they struggle to maintain what sometimes feels like an ersatz, unreal, jerry-built life in contrast to what made up a life in their country of origin, with it’s village culture, extended families and accountability. Arlin’s most recent project, Unexpected Journeys, co-directed with Linda Kidder and co-produced last January with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and the Kazbah Project, presented the work of women from Armenia, Turkey, Nigeria, America, Egypt, Australia and the United Kingdom who have been influenced by Islamic culture. Work on this production was well underway by the spring of 2001. No one could have anticipated its aching relevance a few months later. Elicited by the reading and panel discussions that made up the project, Arlin seems to have reserved her special affection for the first part of her main-stage production, two one-act plays entitled The Cracking Mud is Pinching Me and Bermuda Triangle. Cracking Mud portrays three generations of Palestinian women discussing life, religion and love at a Dead Sea spa’. We are presented with a twenty-something, American-educated woman, Maya, who has returned home to embrace the stricter practices of her religion, while her mother, who has little tolerance for the traditional Muslim dream, favors bright colors and swimsuits and freedom. In the midst of this value conflict is the grandmother, who weaves in and out of respect for tradition and liberation. OPENING SOON For those of us who missed this well-received production, Arlin has much in store for us. Starting June 7, she will launch another Immigrants’ Theatre Project series at the East Side Tenement Museum entitled American Dreams, made up of ten plays running until August 9, all touching on the immigrant experience in New York City. The first play in the series, written by Stephen Kelleher, portrays a New York City family’s efforts to smuggle its undocumented pregnant housekeeper back to Mexico. Another, Wanda & Me, by Theresa Linnihan, portrays a Swedish woman who, with the help of her cat, is just beginning to feel at home after sixty years of living in the States. These plays stand our received notions of immigration on their heads. Think of the rich irony in an immigrant sneaking back into her own country. Think that anywhere here might not be better than the place of origin. Why would it take sixty years to feel at home somewhere? Is it because home may after all be constituted of something other than ancestry and geography? Something about Arlin makes you want to tell her about yourself. I tell her how a social studies project at my son’s school required the children to report on the immigrant experience. Seventy per cent of the children did not have to reach far. They all had immigrant parents or grandparents. As I’m about to tell her how, standing in line any one day at the Coop, I am bound to be in the company of other immigrants, we get sidetracked in a discussion of how Marcy’s relationship with the Coop began. Her first workspace was in the Mongoose Community Center, the predecessor organization to the Coop. We then segue into how Marcy acts as a Coop emissary, handing out Coop literature to the actors and the others involved in her productions. Marcy believes the Coop provides a kind of instant community-to everybody, but particularly to immigrants in New York. Then we are talking about the funding process for her theatre projects, and the sheer effort that goes into putting any one project on while at the same time holding down a teaching job at LaGuardia Community College. While she is upset by the times, she is grateful that they are giving a little more heft to, her stories and imbue them with an urgency and relevance not just for immigrants. Americans, now more than ever, are required to understand the other in their midst. Equally, for immigrants, Arlin’s kind of theatre not only offers them an opportunity to gain new self-understanding, but to see themselves and their conflicts and cultures dramatized in a way that sounds in their everyday experiences. Often, it is just that kind of acknowledgement that can shift the world a bit.

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