Performances of things past by Immigrants' Theatre
By Kathy Chu
NEWSDAY - Jun 1, 1999
On a 100 foot stage on the ground floor of the nation's only landmark designated tenement building, a theater troupe will portray immigrant experiences as living history this summer.
Members of the Immigrants' Theatre Project, an ethnically and religiously diverse group of actors, are taking the stage at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum each week through August. In a former pub known as Schneider's Saloon - which opened in 1863, when the five story, red brick edifice at 97 0rchard St. was constructed - the troupe hopes to reenact the experiences of immigrants who lived in the United States.
"The performances are very culture specific, but I think they're universal in their appeal," said Marcy Arlin, who founded the troupe in 1988.
Arlin, who now serves as artistic director, said she formed the theater group to tap into "an audience that was unexplored." The child of Russian and Polish parents, she grew up conscious of how little she knew beyond her grandparents' generation.
Arlin wanted the performances to give immigrants a way to express their past.
"I wanted to do plays by and about immigrants," she said. "When I started, there was a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment. I felt a lot of them were being played against each other. I tried to say [with the performances], 'Look everybody, you have a lot in common.' "
After almost a decade of bouncing around from venues such as the South Street Seaport and the Brooklyn Public Library, the troupe began performing last year on the modest stage of the museum. The theater setting features a 19th Century tin ceiling and a vinyl covered timber floor. Each Thursday night, the professional group, which varies in size and has up to six members, acts out a play written and directed by a mix, depending on the play, of blacks, Asians, Hispanics and American Indians.
Museum organizers and troupe members applauded the partnership of the museum and the theater group.
Benjamin Trimmier, a spokesman for the museum, said the troupe reinforces the organization's mission of tolerance and historical preservation of immigrant experiences.
"The theater is basically a way to involve people with history," said Trimmier. "It's an obvious tool to tell these stories beyond the [museum] rooms."
In addition to hosting Immigrants' Theater Project, the museum offers tours of four apartments in the landmark tenement building, which housed approximately 7,000 residents from 26 countries over the years. Each three room, 325 square foot apartment on display captures a period in the life of one of the its occupants, from German born Nathalie Gumpertz' struggle to support her four children in 1874, to a 1918 Shiva - or Jewish mourning period - following a family's loss of its patriarch, a Lithuanian garment presser named Abraham Rogarshevsky.
Congress designated the tenement building a National Historic Landmark last year, making it eligible for funding and assistance from the National Park Service. The museum is also affiliated with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. More than 75,000 visitors tour the apartments each year, according to museum employees.
The museum also convenes English as a Second Language classes, leads neighborhood walking tours and recently hosted a wedding. Bringing in the theater troupe is the latest attempt by founder Ruth Abram and her staff to give the public an interactive tour of immigrant life. "We always feel it's so important to give voice to this experience," Katherine Snider, the museum's director of public relations, said about the plays. "We try to focus on history by bringing it to the present."
Upcoming productions include the July 1 performance of "Geck and Gull," a play directed by Dan Dzindzihashvili, who emigrated from the Republic of Georgia. The story focuses on how the lives of an elderly Russian couple and their son clash with that of a female East Indian disc jockey and a Hispanic junk bond trader.
"CaribBeing," to be presented July 15, features Trinidad native Tessa Martin, acting out the characters of 15 Brooklyn and Queens residents from different Caribbean regions.
"The theme is that even among Caribbean people, there's this secularism," said Arlin. "It's a whole world of' people that most New Yorkers don't know much about."