Thursday, April 21, 2016

Milicent Wright as today's newly arrived urban American: A timely reminder of immigration and identity in IRT's "Bridge & Tunnel"

Milicent Wright as Pakistani-American host of a poetry cafe.
When emcee Mohammed Ali tells the gathering at a poetry cafe in the New York borough of Queens about the success of the "I Am a Poet Too" project, he notes with pride in Pakistani-accented English "how much we had grown from the word of mouth."

He is talking about the Bridge & Tunnel's open-mike evenings, but he could also be describing the American narrative. How we tell our individual stories is essential to telling the nation's story. "The word of mouth" is key to our growth, though we have often resisted it.

I usually keep this blog free of politics but I can't avoid remarking on the coincidence of seeing "Bridge & Tunnel," in the middle of its run at Indiana Repertory Theatre, on the same day the presidential candidate notorious for anti-immigrant views visited the city and the day before his closest rival stopped by.

How far from the skepticism and hostility of the Donald Trump and Ted Cruz presidential campaigns is Sarah Jones' focus on immigrant lives and the stories of adjustment to life here they have to tell!

Partisans of the two Republican candidates will insist that they are open to legal immigration, but the severity of their viewpoints on the issue contrasts with this one-woman show's openness to the advantages new arrivals bring to this country.

Milicent Wright plays 15 characters, moving from one to the other with slight but defining changes of props and costume in full view of the Upperstage audience. In Wednesday's performance, her comfort in the roles was absolute. But it was more than a matter of being at home with the Bridge & Tunnel people; it was the actress' embrace of them and embodiment their individuality. It felt as though she had spent years being each one.

Her command was evident from the exuberant way into the milieu the playwright provides: Loud, effervescent Ms. Lady, a self-described homeless usher for Bridge & Tunnel, bursts onto the scene, congratulating a latecomer on his choice of seat before sweeping down a side aisle and welcoming everyone. Wright is irresistible initiating this kind of group hug, but it's far from the only note she sounds in interpreting the urban American symphony.

Wright's Lorraine Levine shares a piece of her mind.
In the course of the next 90 minutes, she displays a range that includes awkwardness, bitterness, and embarrassment as well. Several aspects are concentrated in the character of Mohammed Ali, a bluff, hearty accountant by profession who's fond of corny jokes, one-liners he footnotes with "That's a good one." Jones gives the character nuance by indicating in cell-phone conversations with his wife that the family is facing security issues shadowing his conviction that he's fully American.

Like him, nearly all the characters are immigrants, or have the immigrant experience indelibly stamped upon them. Especially memorable in the latter category is Lorraine Levine,  a Jewish grandmother who delivers a hilarious piece on being deferred to on public transit when all she wants is to be able to define herself in her own way — like everybody else.

Identity politics has come in for a lot of scrutiny as well as self-promoting bluster nowadays. For the immigrant, proclaiming an identity that defies stereotyping is often a full-time pursuit. It animates the pained, satirical rap of Bao Viet Dinh, a Vietnamese-American running down the pigeonholing of East Asians as forever exotic and irredeemably different. (A Star reporter with that heritage was asked at yesterday's Trump rally: "How long have you lived in this country?")

The most moving monologue delivered by Wright in the performance I saw displayed the cultural shock of Pauline Ling, forced to redefine family not only by the conventionally narrow American definition but also by challenges to traditional definitions she has brought with her from China. The rhythm — the sheer, sad music — of Wright's delivery of Ling's halting speech from note cards was reinforced by the way director Richard Roberts has her move about Gordon Strain's set. Each of the characters has his or her own movement vocabulary to go with verbal idiosyncrasies.

Allen Hahn's lighting makes the threadbare cafe setting look both challenging and cozy, a perfect complement to the show's message. Amid the pathos, there's an abundance of humor, from a Russian immigrant's amazement at what passes for contemporary poetry in his adopted homeland to the edgy self-awareness of a black rapper using the open-mike format to put his brand forward amid strangers.

Strangers are the only hope for eventual acceptance here for many new residents, since Jones indicates they have either come to the U.S. alone or feel enough isolated that they are moved to try their luck connecting through poetry. The rapper uses "You know what I'm sayin'?" as both a refrain for his message and a self-conscious way to plead for understanding, knowing that it's a cliche of his genre.

It's what all these vivid characters are asking, along with the emcee's self-conscious nudge: "That's a good one." This show's a good one, and that's no joke.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]


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