The Not-So-Melting Pot
Immigration is a physical act. A body of water is crossed; a mountain range grows smaller and smaller until it appears to be the knuckles of a hand resting on the earth. A dissonant jumble of consonants and vowels seeps into our thoughts until our dreams are flooded. We fall asleep under one sun, and the next day a new, strange light calls our bodies from sleep. This is immigration. No matter what the ideological and political reasons are, the act of leaving one's homeland is a physical separation that is irrevocable.
It is appropriate, then, that the Broward Stage Door Theatre's production of The Immigrant: A Hamilton County Album, by Mark Harelik, begins not with words or movement but with sounds. The stage is dark except for the figure of the immigrant Haskell (played by Grant Neale), who stands onstage slightly off center. As he peers toward some unknown point in the distance, a series of sounds -- whistles, trains, horses, Russian, Yiddish, English, water splashing, children crying, music, laughter -- rushes around him. In the first of many scenes showing Hugh Murphy's resourceful direction, we hear Haskell's voyage from Russia to Texas. Equally seamless and fluid are the expressions of joy, hope, fear, and confusion that pass across his face until everything grows silent and dark. The stage lights come up, illuminating a simple front porch and small-town storefront. We hear mockingbirds singing, and we know we have reached Hamilton, Texas, population 1200.
The play, in fact, is a true story. Harelik is the real-life grandson of Haskell, a Russian Jew who emigrated to the United States in 1909 and ended up in Hamilton. Haskell is pulling a wheelbarrow and selling bananas when he meets Milton (played by Gordon McConnell) and Ima (Joy Johnson), a banker and his wife, who take him into their home and help him turn the banana cart into a horse-drawn fruit-and-vegetable market. Later Haskell saves his money, sends for his wife, Leah (Patti Gardner), and eventually ends up having three sons and his own successful business. The story looks at the friendship of these two couples and reveals an interesting aspect of immigration: the process of acculturation, which happens for both couples.
One of the smartest choices Harelik made in writing The Immigrant was to narrow his focus to these four characters. Given a story that is multicultural and multigenerational, the audience could get lost if the script tried to cover too much ground. (A prime example would be Mario Diament's The Book of Ruth, recently performed at New Theatre, in which the host of characters -- four actresses portray Ruth at various ages -- manage to create more chaos than emotional depth.) The writer's emphasis on depth over breadth gives the play the emotional impact it needs to convey the long, even never-ending, journey of "assimilation," a theme that often is overshadowed by the prettier, more palatable vision of America's melting pot. What we learn from The Immigrant is what we sense intuitively as Americans and especially as residents of South Florida: Human beings don't melt. Acculturation, the process of adapting to a new culture, is a lifelong series of negotiations between the religion, beliefs, and way of life of one's homeland and those of one's "host" country.
Another key to the success of this production is the acting. Not only does each actor give an outstanding performance, but there is a balance among the cast. No one role, not even that of the immigrant himself, carries more weight than another. This emotional egalitarianism lends itself well to a central theme of the play: Tolerance does not always come naturally and sometimes does not come at all, but when it does, it often is a conscious act, and it always requires give-and-take. This, alas, is what we've known all along but have been afraid to admit. The reality of getting along is not as effortless as a "We Are the World" music video or as evocative as a Benetton ad.
In The Immigrant there are moments of mutual understanding, such as when Milton and Haskell talk business or when Ima and Leah, sharing stories about their mothers' superstitions, discover they both throw salt over their shoulders. But there are moments when the only common bond is tolerance. Ima, a strict Christian, is devastated that Milton won't accept Jesus as his savior. As she expounds her belief that you must be "saved" to go to Heaven, Leah listens not as a Jew but as a friend. Likewise when Leah attempts to tell Ima and Milton that the Jews are "the chosen ones," Haskell quickly jumps in to say, "There were less people back then. It was an easier choice."
But not all differences are so easily overlooked, and a great rupture occurs between Milton and Haskell over the United States' participation in World War II. Unable, as most Americans were at the time, to believe or acknowledge the reports and rumors of the persecution that had been going on for years before the war, Milton says the United States should take care of its own. He says Haskell is American now and should mind his own business. Haskell argues that the Jews are his people, and that he is Jewish no matter how long he lives in America. In an impassioned and furious argument, the two sever a friendship of more than 30 years. This provides a view of the rarely depicted pre-heroic America that ignored the glaring signs of persecution in Europe and fostered its own anti-Semitism at home.
The setting of The Immigrant is quintessentially American in two conflicting yet real ways. Hamilton, Texas, represents the deeply mythic land of opportunity, where one can arrive with nothing and, with hard work, make a life. An immigrant begins with a banana cart and retires with a successful chain of stores. This is a not-uncommon American success story that still happens today. But the townalso embodies the America of xenophobia and prejudice. When Ima discovers someone has shot a hole in Haskell's fruit-cart sign, she is taken aback. She tries to understand, and then tries to apologize for her bigoted neighbors. In the end she can only walk away embarrassed.
But if blind hope is not the final word, neither is intolerance. The Immigrant succeeds because it does not settle on tragedy or comedy but on reality. In one of the most powerful moments in the play, Haskell and Leah visit Ima and Milton after not having communicated for many years. Milton is completely paralyzed and in a wheelchair. When he and Haskell are left alone together, Haskell expresses regret for having let a difference of opinion sever the friendship. He puts his hand on Milton's leg, and as he stands up and leaves, Milton's hand falls awkwardly to where Haskell's hand was. Milton's face is red and contorted as he makes a futile attempt to speak, but Haskell has gone. This combination of solid writing and intelligent direction gives The Immigrant emotional power. It reflects reality: Sometimes reconciliations come too late. An attempt to connect with another can slip away unseen.
Another interesting note about the play is its effective use of Yiddish early on, when Haskell arrives in Hamilton. Perhaps only in New York, Israel, and South Florida would one find a play that uses Yiddish. The language is highly contextualized with gestures and situation, so there is no obstacle to understanding. On the contrary the use of Yiddish creates a verisimilitude that mirrors the comedy, frustration, and isolation of learning a new language.
South Florida brims with true stories of immigration. In 1909 young Haskell fled Russia and the axiom of the time: "If you love Mother Russia, kill the Jews." Almost 100 years later, at La Iglesia de la Mercedes in Havana, Consuelo Valdez cuts off a handful of hair close to her scalp and places it at the foot of La Caridad del Cobre, Cuba's patron saint. She is fulfilling una promesa, giving thanks, because she has just received news that her 21-year-old daughter made it safely to land near Key West. In Miami a Haitian immigrant, Jean-Paul Bromier, works all day cleaning office buildings and drives a taxi all night, in hopes of saving money to bring his wife over "the legal way."
People come to the United States in many ways and for many reasons, but one common denominator is desperation, accompanied by unquenchable hope. As Haskell says to Milton: "It feels safe here."
Milton replies, "Yep. I guess we don't get a lot of problems round here."
From that one brief exchange, we realize their concepts of safety are worlds apart. The same goes for other concepts, such as faith, friendship, and family. Today we are many more Haskells and Miltons in a much smaller space, which makes the title pertinent to all of us on some level, and the play itself all the more relevant.
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