Whether you call yourself a first- or second-generation American, whether or not you grew up in a household where a language other than English was spoken, or your family routinely observed the customs of a foreign culture: If you are the child of immigrants, you are the guardian of a narrative that is not your own. As the daughter of a mother from Russia, I am fully aware what a burden and gift this legacy can be, whether one consciously rejects or unconsciously accepts it.
Many playwrights accept it, and find in their parent’s journey from one culture to another, from dislocation to assimilation (or some other ambiguous, transitional state), rich veins of inquiry and drama.
Given how central immigration has been to the development of the American psyche and society, how necessary and fundamental to our continuing renewal and dynamism, there is an enormous wellspring of meaningful stage literature that flows from the immigrant experience. But it is one thing for someone to relate his or her migration odyssey in the first person. It is another for their American offspring to absorb the journey through family memories, or by osmosis, and interpret it in a different voice and time.
When I began thinking about this in relation to theatre, I started realizing how many important American dramatists have grown up with foreign-born parents. George M. Cohan, Eugene O’Neill, Paddy Chayefsky, Edna Ferber, and Clifford Odets were among the array of major 20th-century dramatists born of European immigrants, as were Arthur Miller and David Mamet.
As U.S. immigration patterns and policies changed, waves of newcomers from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America have settled on these shores and also have produced a bounty of gifted dramatists. Such Latinx scribes as Luis Valdez, Octavio Solis, and Migdalia Cruz, and Asian-American writers such as Wakako Yamauchi, David Henry Hwang, Naomi Iizuka, Ping Chong, and Lloyd Suh were raised in immigrant households. So were Danai Gurira, Jocelyn Bioh, Mfoniso Udofia, and Ngozi Anyanwu, whose immediate families hailed from African nations. Mona Monsour and Saïd Sayrafiezadeh are among the noteworthy American playwrights of Middle Eastern parentage.
What impact has this had on our modern dramaturgy? It’s not easily quantifiable. Clearly, not every writer takes as a subject the lives of their parents and the influence of a distant “homeland” they may have never seen or felt much affinity for. Yet even a secondhand account of a family exodus and relocation can strongly shape a writer’s worldview, and resonate in characters and themes they pursue.
“Being the children of immigrants is about becoming a promise of the sense of diasporic hope,” playwright Suh, who examines the Korean-American diaspora in American Hwangap (published in AT, Dec. ’10), told the Korea Herald newspaper. Suh continued, “Your parents moved for opportunities and their children are capable of things that they might not even be able to imagine.”
In the book Inheriting the City, CUNY Graduate Center professor Philip Kasinitz and his co-authors contend, based on a study, that the progeny of recent immigrants have a unique opportunity to blend traditional and “Americanized” ways. They are “keeping some elements and discarding others as they go along…This biculturalism in no way prevents their joining the ‘mainstream,’” the book concludes. “Indeed, in their cultural, economic, and social activities, the children of immigrants increasingly are the mainstream.”
Demographics verify that. In 2014 the Pew Research Center projected that “if current migration patterns continue, immigrants and their children will represent 36 percent of the U.S. population in 2065, which equals or surpasses the peak levels last seen around the turn of the 20th century. That share will represent a doubling since 1965 (18 percent) and a notable rise from today’s 26 percent.”
At the same time, alas, we’re also witnessing one of America’s periodic surges of anti-immigrant sentiment, compounded by racism and other bigotry. Which is one of the reasons why this subgenre of American drama can be especially valuable to consider. Plays by the children of immigrants can make vivid many of the collective experiences of newcomers intrinsic to our country’s past, present, and future. In comparing older and more recent examples of this literature, common themes emerge—as well as some telling differences.
In Qui Nguyen’s popular recent play Vietgone (AT, Feb. ’17), a narrator—a surrogate for the author—spins his own exuberantly theatrical account of the romance and marriage of his Vietnamese mother and father, who separately fled their war-torn homeland in 1975, during the fall of Saigon, then met in a desolate U.S. refugee camp. In Nguyen’s hands it plays like a quirky, lusty romantic comedy, bristling with humor and the bravado of survival. But there’s sorrow and loss lapping at its edges—agonized memories of loved ones left behind. By fleshing the tale out with American pop music and contemporary sight gags, Nguyen shares the foundational story of one American family, as well as a piece of Vietnamese-American history, filtered through the sensibilities of two generations.
Even when some kind of a safe haven in the U.S. is realized, as it was for this playwright’s parents, and for my mother after fleeing a pogrom in her Jewish village, for many immigrants relocation can feel more like dislocation, checkered with grief and regret. And as these emotions are passed down to the next generation, they can make the children of immigrants feel torn between the demands of one culture and the ghosts and expectations of another.
Some plays, like Josefina Lopez’s Trio Las Machos, attempt to conjure and comprehend an aloof parent through an earlier generation’s migration story. Lopez considers three Mexican men who journey to rural California to labor in the agricultural fields during World War II. They are participants in the Bracero Program, instituted in 1942 by the Mexican and American governments. Before its termination in 1964, the controversial program allowed millions of Mexicans into the U.S. as guest workers, mainly in farm operations. If offered both an economic opportunity and a dehumanizing slog, as workers could be callously exploited despite a guarantee of decent living conditions and a minimum wage.
Lopez depicts her title characters forming a musical group, whose songs of love are threaded through the piece and soothe their difficult lives. The playwright told the Annenberg Media Center’s Neon Tommy news site that her own Mexican-bred father’s challenges inspired her. “He shared with me what [his earlier life] was like, and when I saw photos I was so sad to see how they were treated like animals,” Lopez recalled. “It was so easy to write this play, because I felt like I understood my father’s pain. I grew up seeing him very quiet, cold, and distant, and as I got older I realized he was covering up a lot of pain.”
Indeed refugee narratives can be deeply painful, involving harrowing escapes from tragedy and devastation—escapes accompanied by survivors’ guilt as well as relief. It is often left to the next generation to articulate what the traumatized immigrant parent is unwilling or unable to express: images of war, natural catastrophe, religious persecution, genocide.
In an essay titled “The Aftermath of War: Second Generation Performance Art,” Queensborough Community College professor Susan Jacobowitz observes that solo theatre pieces in particular can be vehicles that “utilize the unique perspectives of sons and daughters of survivors, born both from and close to an experience of war.” She goes on to quote Susan Sontag’s comment about the moral centrality of memory: “Remembering is an ethical act, has ethical value in and of itself.” As Jacobowitz surmises, remembering can also be “a gift made to the living.”
Lisa Kron’s haunting, seriocomic 2.5 Minute Ride is one such solo piece, retracing her father’s German-Jewish roots and the Holocaust’s effect on her own childhood. Kron chronicles a deeply disturbing but ultimately cathartic pilgrimage she made with her elderly father to Eastern Europe. They visit the Nazi concentration camp in Poland, Auschwitz (now a museum), where, after sending Kron’s father to safety, her paternal grandparents were murdered.
“Dad and I, we’ve been waiting for this our whole lives,” says Kron, as narrator of the monologue. “We don’t know how to feel. Tomorrow we’ll be at the place where his parents’ bodies lie. No, they were burned. Will we step on their ashes? Will we see a wooden pallet where they slept? Will we kick a stone they also kicked? Will they be hovering above the place, watching us? Are they waiting for their boy? Have they waited all this time for their little boy to come and say goodbye to them?”
Another solo piece, another genocide: Cambodian-American theatre artist Vichet Chum’s Knyum traces his own connection back to his family’s experience vis-à-vis the killing of more than 1.5 million Cambodians during Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s. It wiped out much of a generation, yet his elders came to America and created a very different existence for their son.
“Knyum has allowed me to interrogate my family’s history in a way that I may have taken for granted to begin with,” Chum noted in an interview on the website of Massachusetts’s Merrimack Repertory Theatre, which premiered the piece earlier this year. Speaking generally of Asian-American theatre artists, he said, “All of our families have complicated, rich stories that deserve to be told. As a writer and a performer, I’ve always known that I’ve been endowed with a responsibility to share my family’s stories.”
Other flights from other catastrophes are also rife with drama, with the psychic toll portrayed by such watershed 20th-century playwrights Eugene O’Neill. He famously described his searing, searching autobiographical opus, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, as “written in tears and blood,” while he fearlessly dissected the branching trauma in his own family. One branch led directly back to Ireland: The character of James Tyrone, modeled closely on the playwright’s immigrant father, the actor James O’Neill, was among the more than million Irish who fled to America between 1845 and 1855 to escape a brutal potato famine that decimated about a quarter of the Emerald Isle’s population.
By the 1870s, through talent and perseverance, the elder O’Neill became one of the nation’s most celebrated stage actors, a rags-to-riches success. But Long Day’s Journey presents the trauma of his blighted Irish childhood as a kind of lingering curse afflicting Tyrone, his wife, and children through his alcoholism, cruel miserliness, and a relentless fear of destitution that led O’Neill to squander his artistry on a single play, The Count of Monte Cristo, in which he profitably starred and toured for decades.
At one point Tyrone’s morphine-addicted wife Mary poignantly asks her son Edmund (a surrogate for the playwright) not to be too hard on his “close-fisted” father. “You must try to understand and forgive him, too, and not feel contempt,” she implores. “His father deserted their mother and their six children a year or so after they came to America….Your father had to go work in a machine shop when he was only 10 years old.”
In the compellingly poetic Octavio Solis play Lydia, every member of a working-class Mexican-American family suffers from the scourge of dysfunction and the disappointment of unfulfilled promises, economic as well as spiritual and emotional. Like the playwright’s own parents, the title character is an undocumented immigrant who has journeyed across the border from Mexico to El Paso, Texas. Lydia goes to work as a maid for a troubled Chicano family, but her true function is as a healer. She’s able to translate suffering into desire, shifting the energies of the clan’s morose father, a confused teenage son, and a “vegetable” daughter who has been unable to communicate until Lydia’s arrival. Ultimately, though, this angel of mercy cannot bind everyone’s gaping wounds. And Lydia is ultimately discounted and ejected by the U.S. immigration system, which sends her back to Mexico and a life of desperation.
In an NPR interview, Solis explained that national borders—in this case the one between his native El Paso and the city of Juarez, Mexico—are a vital metaphor for him, a metaphysical as well as geographical boundary. “That’s so much a part of my fabric now, the way I see things,” he said. “There’s always a threshold one crosses, between dark and light, life and death, between one country and another, between one consciousness and another.”
Whether a parent arrived in this country poverty-stricken, persecuted, and emotionally damaged, or relatively healthy and privileged, the psychological cost of assimilation and intergenerational clashes over cultural and religious identity are themes dramatists with immigrant roots have turned to again and again.
Back in the 1930s, Clifford Odets captured the frictions between European Jews like his Russian and Romanian parents and their restive children, and the guilt, shame, and self-hatred such conflict can stoke. His ambitious, controlling father Louis Odets (born Gorodetsky) pursued and largely achieved the American dream of material success. But after the stock market crash of 1929, and during the grinding and demoralizing Great Depression that followed, his radicalized son questioned the intrinsic value of upward immigrant mobility in such plays of militant disillusionment as Paradise Lost and Awake and Sing!.
In one of his notebooks, Odets mused, “The American and dehumanizing myth of the steadily expanding economy…Where does America stop? When does it begin to make homes and sink nourishing roots?”
From another, nearer perspective, Ayad Akhtar, the American-born son of Pakistani physicians, has pondered religious and identity conflicts within immigrant families in several recent plays. The Who & the What, for instance, portrays a woman whose successful immigrant father from Pakistan, a devout Muslim widower, encourages her literary education and a book project she’s working on. But when he discovers that she’s written a revisionist feminist view of the prophet Muhammad, which he considers blasphemous and dangerous, his close bond with his daughter ruptures.
And in an ambitious multi-play project she calls “The Ufot Cycle,” Nigerian-American dramatist Mfoniso Udofia spotlights characters whose journey recalls her own family’s passage from West Africa to the U.S. Her parents were not exiles or refugees, as Udofia told The New York Times, but like “quite a few of the Nigerians that I know,” came to the U.S. “to explicitly study and leave. And quite a few decided to stay.”
In Sojourners and Her Portmanteau (staged last year in tandem at New York Theatre Workshop), Udofia depicts at various junctures the lives of a Nigerian woman, Abasiama Ufot, her husband, Disciple, and their children, striving to evoke a panoramic “immigration creation story.” It too is teeming with culture clashes, ambitions realized and deflected, and quandaries over which elements of two cultures to keep or shrug off in the mercurial purge-and-merge process of becoming American.
Clearly there are countless other stories to tell in this vein, plays that convey the unfolding story of a nation composed mainly of immigrants from every corner of the planet. While political demagogues rant about erecting border walls, and naturalization laws and enforcement tighten or loosen according to the prevailing political winds, nothing can change the reality of our diverse history and manifold present, as painful and complicated as it often has been. In our stories of exile and rebirth, division and inclusion, loss and reinvention, there is more than enough material for another generation of playwrights to mine, in plays that will remind us—as the most insightful, humane plays can—of who we really are and who we are becoming.
Seattle-based critic and author Misha Berson writes frequently for this magazine.