On December 16, 1960, two commercial jets collided over New York City and came crashing down — one on Staten Island, the other in Park Slope, Brooklyn. All 128 people on both planes and 6 people on the ground were killed in what was then history’s most fatal aviation disaster. In Meghan Kennedy’s new play, Napoli, Brooklyn — currently being staged by the Roundabout Theater Company under the direction of Gordon Edelstein — this chaos from the skies falls into the lives of a working-class Italian American family that has plenty of troubles already. (Click here to read Michael Feingold’s review of the production.) Among the heavy stuff facing the three Muscolino sisters and their parents: domestic violence, homophobia, religious doubts, the limits imposed on women, and the way loved ones can both sustain and stifle you.
The Voice sat down with Kennedy to talk about complicated families, balancing fact and fiction, and how much Brooklyn has changed over the last six decades or so. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
I read somewhere that you based the play on your mom’s childhood.
It’s based on her family and her adolescence, growing up in Brooklyn in a very strict Italian, Catholic, immigrant family. I grew up hearing stories about this plane crash in their neighborhood. She always talked about it in terms of the family dynamic before the crash and after the crash, and that stayed with me. My mom is gay, and growing up in that kind of a household — she had a tough go of it.
Has your mom seen the show?
She has. She’s been at every reading. I think I got her seal of approval. I hope. I mean, I’m taking poetic license with her life. It’s a big ask.
The Brooklyn of 1960 is so different from the Brooklyn of today. Condo buildings now stand where the plane crash happened [at Seventh Avenue and Sterling Place]. Was it difficult imagining a pre-gentrification Park Slope?
I took a lot of walks around that neighborhood. And yes, it’s very different. But the brownstones are still there. That church [the Pillar of Fire Church, destroyed in the crash] has been rebuilt. There are pieces. There’s a diner there that has put up pictures of the crash. Which is a little weird because it’s not very appetizing.
Beyond what the crash did to the neighborhood, what does it do to these searching, troubled characters when a disaster falls out of the sky like that?
In these communities, everything is so insular. The idea that this force from the outside world can disrupt that — I think there’s a really interesting push-pull in that, in opening people’s eyes that there’s a bigger world out there. I wanted to look at what those kinds of events can do to people, the different roads it can send you down in terms of who you are and what matters.
It’s interesting how the event is interpreted differently by the characters — some see it as punishment for their sins, others as a miracle. And in some cases, it doesn’t change anything. The violent father says he’ll turn over a new leaf but then he doesn’t.
Change isn’t easy. With this event, the father thinks he can press reset and become someone who he wants to be. But that’s just not what happens in life.
The play doesn’t withhold sympathy from him, though.
No, I mean, he’s human. He came to America wanting a better life like so many people do, and everything went wrong. And that will really wear you down, especially with someone with a short fuse. I don’t think he’s someone who thought he would ever become as violent as he becomes.
What were some of the challenges of blending memoir, history, and fiction? Did you feel constrained by the facts and your family’s experience?
I felt very cautious about it at first because I was using certain personal elements, and I wanted to be true to history. I was trying to be a good student. And then there came a point where I needed to let that go and let the characters be who they needed to be. It’s a delicate thing, dealing with certain elements of truth. But at the end of the day, I’m telling a story. It’s not what actually happened — it’s an imagined piece of it. I’m not making a documentary. I’m spinning a tale. [The historical context] gave me a setting that was very rich that I could play with. I could really dig. [Makes big digging motion] I keep using hand gestures. It’s very Italian of me.
A previous play of yours, Too Much, Too Much, Too Many, also concerns family and memory and ghosts of the past. What is it about those themes that captivates you?
I tend to start from some kernel of something that’s true for me and then head straight for it even if it scares me. If it doesn’t cost you something, I don’t buy it. I’m not the kind of writer who can pull a story from the newspaper and make it mine. It has to come from somewhere in me.
Since Napoli does tell a personal story based on your own family, was it difficult to relinquish control to a director and a cast?
It was. But it was also a dream to cast so many women. This play requires six strong female characters. So when we found those people, it became easy to hand it over. It’s a very collective thing, and this is very much the women’s play.
Was that important to you?
There’s a lot of points of view on the stage, and most of them are female, and that’s not something we see enough of. This play is a way to shine a spotlight on how hard it still is for women and immigrants to come into their own. When I think about my mother being a young woman and knowing that she was gay in that time period — she’s just the strongest person I know. And I wanted to honor that.