Playwright: William Massolia. At: Griffin Theatre at The Den, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: 866-811-4111; GriffinTheatre.com; $36. Runs through: April 23
A large ensemble cast in an intimate space presents the United States' history, from the Jamestown settlement until today, as told through the words of America's immigrantswhich is all of us who aren't Native American. A few famous folk appear but most are ordinary men and women from early French, English and Scottish colonists, to the forced immigration of slaves and indentured servants, to Eastern Europeans at the turn of the last century, to today's Asian and African refugees.
Playwright William Massolia's documentary approach provides several unusual perspectives, such as treating the 20th-century "Great Migration" of Blacks from the South to the North as an immigrant class, and noting Mexican immigration to California long before it was a United States territory. Ms. Liberty and Ellis Island are there, of course, but so is Angel Island, the West Coast gateway for Asian immigrants.
Above all, Massolia highlights repetitive patterns in our immigration history, from the persecutions which drove many to this country, to the high aspirations which continue to inspire new-comers, to darker patterns of ignorance and intolerance from those who arrived earlier towards later arrivals of different nationalities, religions or races. America has welcomed millions to our Golden Shore, but nonetheless always has had prejudicial laws, sometimes targeting Chinese or Japanese, sometimes Jews or Muslims. It's the same, to this very hour.
In To America is intelligent, revealing and sometimes biting. It's not a play, however, in the sense of continuing characters and ongoing action. Its 400-year chronology is the only arc. Think of it as a spoken word concert presentation. Indeed, the addition of appropriate live music might turn it into a legitimate concert piece. The work has occasional humor but is generally solemn. Surprisingly, In To America largely ignores the immigration of Eastern European Jews between the 1870s and 1920sa significant omission. Labor leader Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor, is cited without being identified as an immigrant or a Jew ( and he was both ). It's sadly ironic that his voice is one of bigotry, quoted in support of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
The production is seamlessly staged by Dorothy Milne, vastly experienced in stage adaptations of non-dramatic literature. Her multicultural cast of 13, all playing multiple roles, flows smoothly between pools of light ( Lee Fiskness ) or a simple, open setting ( Joe Schermoly ). They wear costumes ( Rachel Sypniewski ) with a homespun look evoking many times and places with no need for absolute specificity. Milne, Fiskness, Schermoly, Sypniewski, 13 actors, playwright Massolia, critic AbarbanelIn To America is our story.