"On the Way to Shangri-La" was a short play I wrote a few years ago for the annual contest “Scenes from the Staten Island Ferry.” It’s about an elderly Irish mother reliving her original entry into America as she and her daughter pass the Statue of Liberty on the Ferry. It was selected, and had six successful performances, and audience response was that it is a deeply moving play.
The next year, with the generous support of a JPMorgan Chase grant, the play was again performed, mid-Island, at the Richmondtown Library. This time it was intended to illustrate the immigrant experience, past and present. The program was introduced by Susan Fenley, artistic director of Sundog Theatre, who explained how it was chosen for her production, and set designer, Steve Fehr brought a bench from that original show that added to the illusion that the play was taking place on the Ferry.
It starred the same two actresses who originated the roles: Diane Fisher Flores as Moira and Angela Milton as her daughter, Ada (see photo). After the performance, the actresses and myself engaged the audience in a discussion of their own families voyages to America. There were a number of Italian Americans who told how their parents came speaking no English and faced hostility, disappointment and hardship in their early years in the U.S. There was a Jewish woman whose family came to escape pogroms in Russia but found life in America full of humiliation and prejudice. Others had ancestors who were from Germany, the Ukraine, and Sweden, but they said their people emigrated so long ago their stories were never handed down.
I had assumed that sharing their own past stories would give everyone insight and
empathy towards the present day Hispanic immigrants we see living among us, all of them optimistically pursuing the American dream. However, a surprising well of resentment towards these modern immigrants emerged from many people in the audience. The discussion became extremely political with foreign-speaking immigrants "them" being labeled "illegals" who are "exploiting America." This led to a very heated discussion that went on way past the designated hour, with anti-immigrant and pro-immigrant speakers yelling at each other nose to nose.
I tried to staunch the flood of vituperation by explaining this dialogue was a repetition of what their ancestors faced in the New World, but they'd have none of it. Their families were different, they were decent hardworking people, there were no welfare handouts to them, their entry into Ellis Island on board ships was not the same as sneaking across borders.
Some reasonable folk hit back with the information it was called RELIEF back then, and the derogatory term for Italians, WOP, stood for Without Official Papers, but they were shouted down. If I had been able to record and transcribe the entire program it would have been a perfect Off Broadway play, just as written.
Once I accepted that, in spite of the heat in the room, there would not be an exchange of blows, it actually became quite exhilarating. Then to top it all, at the height of the storm, an adorable two year old Hispanic boy ran in. He was looking for his American mother, my friend Carolyn Clark, who had remained silent throughout. There was a sudden lull, and the shouting died down, as some people asked,
“Who is this child?” “What is he doing here?”
“He is my son, Kyle,” said Carolyn. “We adopted him from Guatemala.”
A particularly vehement anti-immigrant woman was dumbstruck, glaring at the smiling child as he climbed into his mother’s lap, then asking incredulously,
"Did he come here legally?"
The irony was not lost on everybody. Some even gasped.
“Of course,” said Carolyn, holding him close.
The arguments resumed, but somehow the rage had dissipated, and I like to believe that the hatred of a whole race had been diminished by the appearance of an innocent smiling child.
I’m not sure if this was quite what JPMorgan Chase intended, but it was an enlightening experience for me and, I am happy to relate, in the end everybody parted as friends in spite of their differences.
A few months later, the play was invited to perform at the illustrious St. George Theatre as part of the annual Art by The Ferry Festival; the next year it won a place in the annual 15 Minute Play Festival at the American Globe Theatre near Times Square, and I’ve been asked to bring the show to DOROT, a Jewish senior organization in Manhattan, next Fall. I’ll keep you informed of how that goes.