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The Immigrant Experience

By Amy Meadows

Staff Writer

MIT Dramashop

Feb. 14, 15, and 16 at 8:00 p.m.

Kresge Little Theater

Directed by Brenda Cotto-Escalera.

Choreographed by Isaura Oliveira.

Produced by Debora A. Lui ’02, Amy V. Mueller ’02, Anand D. Sarwate ’01.

With Usman O. Akeju ’04, Annamarie Bautista ’02, Ishani R. Das ’03, Rani F. Matuk ’02, Kim Khanh D. Nguyen ’03, Rosa Elena Obregon ’04, Tawanda C. Sibanda ’05, Melina Smirniou, Hillary B. Stanton ’05, and Chris A. Toepel ’03

What does it mean to be an American? What about an immigrant? Does it matter how or when or why you came into the country? Should you be viewed any differently because of the language you speak or your appearance? Seachange, Dramashop’s “collective theater creation,” explores the complex issues surrounding the identity and nationality of American immigrants.

As one performer noted, America is the “melting pot, the beef stew of the world.” Indeed, the hundreds of millions of residents of the United States have a diverse heritage: the backgrounds of those involved in the production of Seachange reflect this and range from Russian/Polish to Cuban to Lebanese/Jordanian.

Seachange combined these varied elements in an explosion of music, poetry, dance, and drama. Even though the lively production was consistently engaging, it may not be well suited to all tastes. The form is highly creative and abandons most typical structures like plot and temporal narrative. For the first twenty minutes or so, Seachange felt aimless and drifting, but as I gradually became more engaged and more interested in the constant themes and ideas, my experience was transformed.

The individual performer’s narratives brought home the message about the diverse experiences of immigrants. Each chose to act or tell, along with the other performers, a story about their first or second-hand experiences with immigration into America. Anna V. Bautista ’02, for example, imagined writing to her Filipino father who spent years in the American military. Ishani R. Das ’03 dramatized trying on a sari and dancing traditional Indian dances. By the end of Das’s piece the sari was tied like a super-man cape and she had concluded “me encanta la salsa.” Hillary B. Stanton ’05 also memorably recreated her great-great-grandmother’s bootlegging operation during the Depression.

While the experiences of the performers and their families were funny, touching, and filled with both positive and negative emotion, one of the most striking pieces was by Rani F. Matuk ’02. Standing in stark contrast to the rest of the play and performers, he played the devil’s advocate, angrily demanding action on the topic of illegal immigrants. “We’re being ambushed,” he challenged. “Are we going to sit around and watch our country rot from the inside or are we going to do something about it?” The language and tone were startling after the fluidity of the previous performances, but his soliloquy was one of the most thought provoking of the night. Do we continue to let immigrants into the country because we are the “melting pot” or do we limit our diversity to those whose ancestors have already come into the country? Like all of the questions raised by the play, there was no clear answer, only more questions.

Many elements of the production were constantly changing, reflecting the differences between stories and personal experiences with immigration. The live music -- mostly percussion, steel drums, and guitar -- converted frequently, adapting to the pace of the acting and dance. The lighting, too, went from blue to red and green to other shades of the rainbow. The white screen at the back of the stage as well as the performers’ light clothing highlighted the ever-changing lighting.

The production was minimalist, using only that which was immediately available for props and wardrobe “changes.” In the beginning, all the clothing and props stood off to one side of the stage, but as they were used, they migrated to the opposite side. The performers offered them to a statue of Yemaya, “the Yoruba mother of the sea and all life that comes from the sea.”

Seachange offered more than just its props to the sea goddess; the stories were all anchored by another reference to Yemaya. The inspiration for the show came via a news clip reporting that a boat full of immigrants survived for two weeks on one woman’s breast milk. Likewise, Yemaya was described as breast-feeding her children of the sea.

In all, Seachange is a creative, fluid, and dynamic production; it combines multiple art forms and styles in a product as rich and diverse as the performers themselves. Although it is not a typical play, Seachange is an experience worth having. Gradually, one comes to think about the experiences of those who are new to the United States and how it relates to many of the social and political debates on the topic. Although one of the constant themes is “You have to live in somebody else’s country to understand,” Seachange tries to help its audience to understand.