East Side Story
It's not about knishes, chow fun, cuchifritos, or cannoli. There's no paean to pushcarts, no elegy to Ellis Island. Indeed, The Secret History of the Lower East Side steers clear of those simple, sentimental signifiers of scrappy immigrants hell-bent on uplift. The three playlets and the vignettes between them that make up the two-and-a-half-hour performance burrow into the criminal underbelly of the mythic neighborhood, peopling the stage with petty thieves, prostitutes, and two-bit gangsters. The powers that exploit them hover over their stories like the steamy air hanging over the expansive, wire-covered roof of Seward Park High School, where the performance is played.
The audience walks from scene to scene, traipsing across the roof of the school at Grand and Ludlow--perhaps the most specifically site-specific site En Garde Arts has scored yet in its wondrous forays into New York's forsaken spaces. Between scenes, one can peer over chain-link mesh walls to the narrow streets of the nabe, shimmering in the glow of neon signs that spell out wares in every direction: The window of a Dominican restaurant shines with a florid left-to-right cursive; a Chinese grocery advertises in multicolor vertical splendor; fading Yiddish letters march right to left, beckoning customers in need of mezuzahs. But no matter which way they run, all these alphabets seem to point to the five-story high school, a beacon of betterment towering over the nearby tenements.
Much of Secret History concerns the last turn-of-the-century, when Irish, Italian, Eastern European Jewish, and Chinese immigrants sought refuge and enrichment on the Lower East Side--vignettes take place in Dave Resnick's Black-and-Tan Suicide Saloon and in Maize's Crown Royale Yiddish-Sicilian Theater--but the clash of promise and probability, hope and hindrance, emphasized in these scenes bounces off the school walls in posted student essays about journeys from faraway lands, bilingual education, and dreams of prosperity and acceptance.
It's in the three longer pieces that make up the core of Secret History--monologues written by three different playwrights--that the gooey overflow of the melting pot burbles into the darkest and newest streams. The audience, divided into three groups, encounters each of these monologues at different times, and is introduced to them by its own tour guide, who has her own stories to tell as she leads her group from scene to scene. These stories--or at least the ones my guide offered--frame the action with contemporary concerns as she explains her own attenuated ties to the neighborhood.
Trouble is, the writing--and even sometimes the acting--doesn't always live up to the richness of this concept. In Carlos Murillo's The Patron Saint of the Nameless Dead, a mud-smeared immigrant from an unnamed land buries the unknown in Potter's Field. He steals from their graves and commits violent crimes to earn what he hopes will be enough money to bring his beloved to what he still calls "the promised land." The narrative has an eerie circularity, turning in on itself like a Möbius strip, but the stodgy prose sticks in the ground, unassisted by Rafael Baez's melodramatic performance. Peter Ullian's Hester Street Hideaway features a low-level mobster in Meyer Lansky's gang recounting his impoverished upbringing, his criminal exploits, and his affair with an Irish woman who just walked out on him, "her goddam goyishe rosary hung on a doorknob where she left it." Despite an inconsistent Yiddish accent, Saul Stein brings a hard-bitten charm to Ullian's quirky crackling prose, but the monologue lacks a dramatic engine.
Alice Tuan's New Culture for a New Country, performed by the author, is the most theatrical and textured of the three central pieces, if only because it layers many voices into a less linear and less literal story. At its center stands a recent immigrant to Chinatown, packed off by relatives back home after her mother has died. Her experiences melt into others that transpired in these streets before: her pushing of a dim sum cart at Wing Shoon Restaurant fades into a "corn girl" pushing her wares on Hester Street and then into the exhortations of Leon Trotsky, who frequented the Garden Cafeteria that once occupied the same space.
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