Bidding farewell to family and homeland for the prospect of a better life, was the tough choice millions of immigrants to America faced from 1840-1924 during the golden age of immigration to America. It is the story of “Steerage Song,” a musical documentary produced by the Minneapolis professional company Theater Latté Da. Presented by the Central Lakes College Theatre Cultural Arts Series, the show performs one night only Friday, Nov. 7. Curtain is 7:30 p.m. in the Chalberg Theatre on the Brainerd campus.
The show is a tapestry of text and music blended to tell the history of Ellis Island and the millions who passed through it. Half of all Americans can trace their family history to someone who passed through Ellis Island. Other than our Native American citizens, each of us is an immigrant or descendant of immigrants.
In “Steerage Song,” the bulk of the show is made up of the songs that were held dear by the immigrants. Included are Irish laments (the absolutely beautiful “The Shores of Amerikay”), wild dance tunes, and commentary on the experience they find in America, from “That Little German Band” to “Yes, We Have No Bananas” to a Yiddish version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” The songs are presented in the native language of the countries represented by the immigrants.
The texts are drawn from contemporary news reports and show that not much has changed in discussions of immigration: then, as now, there are the fears about “foreign” folks coming here and taking jobs, overcrowding cities, breeding crime and bringing diseases. The audience will also hear from those who understand and embrace the immigrants, and, of course, from the travelers themselves in letters home and in songs they wrote.
The audience may get a sense of how extraordinary it was for so many people to voyage so far with so little — with a reminder that the United States is entirely a land of immigrants.
“The show gives us a perspective in history with which to view the question of immigration today. How open or closed should our borders be — and what does that say about us as a people?” said Patrick Spradlin, theatre director.
“Steerage Song” doesn’t have a fixed plot or characters like a traditional musical. Instead the show is divided into eight parts…“The Call,” “Bidding Farewell,” “The Voyage,” “A Sonnet in the Harbor,” “Ellis Island,” “The Lower East Side,” “By the People, For the People” and “The Golden Door Closes.” There are also only two named characters Moses and his son, Israel. Their story is the thread that connects the story from Europe to North America. Israel’s true life story adds an extra element that brings the story home for the audience. The cast of nine additional actors portray various immigrants and historical figures.
Director and co-creator Peter Rothstein weaves together the stories of the immigrants arriving in America with text from speeches and other historical content from Emma Lazarus, President Calvin Coolidge, Irving Berlin and Robert Louis Stevenson. Dan Chouinard researched and included traditional and authentic songs that tell the story of each homeland, but also familiar tunes like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” The cast sings in either accented English or the native language of the 15 countries represented in the show.
The set designed by John Clark Donahue takes the audience from the homelands of Europe, to the steerage compartment of boats to Ellis Island and to the tenements of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The set can at once represent a dock, the deck of a ship or the streets of Manhattan. Coupled with Peter Rothstein’s staging of coordinated candle lighting and the innovative use of cast members moving and freezing mid-stride, “Steerage Song” is a beautifully theatrical experience.
Founded in 1998 by Peter Rothstein and Denise Prosek, Theater Latté Da is entering its 17th year of combining music and story to illuminate the breadth of the human condition. The company performs in various venues throughout the Twin Cities; “Steerage Song” had as its original performance venue The Lab Theater.
Tickets for “Steerage Song” are available from the CLC Theater Box Office at (218) 855-8199, or online at www.clcmn.edu/arts.