Foregrounding the Little Guy
Everyone who came to America has had their own story. In Chicago, one of the major immigrant destinations, we especially tend to be conscious of our ancestors. But if you want a complete picture of the past four hundred years, you have to understand immigration patterns on a massive scale.
Under the direction of Dorothy Milne, Griffin Theatre guides us through four hundred years of primary accounts in just one hundred minutes.Stories about slaves learning to read, a Japanese teenage bride being sent over the ocean to marry a man she has never met, a Holocaust survivor’s complex relationship with the American Jewish community, and Muslim refugees traumatized by witnessing the murders of their loved ones— any of which could be, and have been full-length plays in their own right— are distilled to their essences in dramatic monologues. Each is able to stand on its own without overshadowing another.
The narratives were compiled by Griffin’s artistic director Bill Massolia. The first story we hear is a Native American legend in which a small bird is crushed flying into a wall of ice, but after successive attempts eventually makes it through.,Massolia includes the familiar leaders of Jamestown early on. First though, we first hear from indentured servants, slaves, and convicts who were brought against their will to the Caribbean and Florida.
Projections by Brock Alter provide most of the physical context of the show as well as the exposition. , We learn that the vast majority of immigration to the New World during the 1500s was involuntary. Massolia’s decision to treat this group of people as America’s forerunners and founders is typical of his focus on later waves.
History is Written by the Literate
As is often the case with Griffin, the cast is large and each performer has about the same amount of stage time. Thirteen actors each play multiple roles, speaking for a few minutes at a time in a plethora of accents. They relate experiences that are, by turns, funny, harrowing, bizarre, and heart-warming. Most of the stories, however, are quite grim. Massolia uses primary sources and by doing so gives us characters who were exceptionally competent at speaking for themselves. The projections inform us that most of them went on to be respected professionals, but their stories mostly center on fleeing persecution or starvation-level poverty only to be subjected to bigotry and exploitation somewhere else. Massolia also includes narratives from African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Native Americans until the point in history at which they, too, migrate and assimilate.
While the script provides a wide array of stories, Milne’s challenge as a director was to consistently find engaging ways to tell them. She succeeds in large part on the dramatic merit of the stories themselves. And, the set designed by Joe Schermoly provides ladders and benches for actors to occasionally drape themselves over,adding a bit of movement to the stage pictures while maintaining a careful balance with representations of action. Usually, the actors directly address the audience while moving about the stage and using their dozen onstage fellows as living set pieces. Every so often, the monologues are broken up by a crowd scene or overlapping, conflicting perspectives on the same event. The ensemble is racially diverse but all youthful, and Milne doesn’t try too much to make them look like anything other than themselves. Costume designer Rachel Sypniewski provided clothes which can look like they’re from almost any era or part of the world.
Griffin Theatre Moves the Conversation Forward
With so many stories by people from all over Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, each audience member is sure to hear at least a few that resonate strongly with them. It is also nearly assured that even students of American history—for whom this show is a must-see—will learn something new. We hear about the Bhagat Singh Thind case at the Supreme Court, Know Nothing anger at Irish and German/Dutch low-skilled workers for driving down wages, and Mexicans fleeing massacres during their revolution. It becomes apparent that not only are there parallels in the past to the present day, but that the exact same conversations have been going on with the exact same talking points for centuries. As touching and entertaining as all the actors are, perhaps the most important function of this play is simply to create a better-informed civic discourse.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.
Thru April 23
Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 pm
Sundays at 3:00 pm
The Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage
1323 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago
About the Author: Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis is a freelance writer and dramaturge. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of dramatic literature and interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham. His professional work includes developing new performance pieces such as The Blues Ain’t a Color. Since moving to Chicago in 2014 he has reviewed theatre, written articles, and conducted interviews for a number of websites.