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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.