POST: 'Liberty: A Monumental New Musical' - the need to have a place to call home
What's it about?
A French sculptor sends Liberty to the United States of America so that she can become a symbol of hope for incoming immigrants as well as the ones struggling to make a living along the New York harbors and beyond.
What'd I experience?
I never expected the Statue of Liberty to be played by a little girl. And she interacted with the rest of the characters, defending herself against the rich New Yorkers who didn’t want to give funding for her pedestal. But it was definitely more than a pedestal she was asking for-- it was a place to belong. As the child of immigrants, I can understand the need to belong somewhere, especially when people from my parents’ country regard me as “American”, and people in the U.S. reduce me to an unchecked box next the option of “Other” on pretty much every official form I fill out.
I was reminded that I've never felt like I belonged anywhere, just like many others who come from families that haven’t been in America for very long probably feel. It’s a small comfort to know that there have been others who felt this way for centuries, especially when they didn’t have much of a choice in coming to the U.S. But in the end, it’s not really a comfort to know that others have shared the same pain as I have. I’m lucky my parents come from an English-speaking country in South America and I’ve never experienced the difficulties of learning English as a second language, but that hasn’t completely saved me from prejudice.
As Liberty tried to gather small donations for her pedestal, she explained that she wanted to stand for everyone, to remind them that they have a reason to hope. She appealed to the working class immigrants who had already been in New York for a while, trying to get them to share their stories of why they came to the U.S., enticing banter between an Irish man and a Jewish woman over which of them had it worse before they came. When Liberty asked an African-American for his support, he responded telling her that she had to do more for him, a man who ran north when he was fourteen, in what I think is one of the most beautiful songs in the musical. (You really have to listen to the song if you can, I can’t do it justice in writing, so I linked it for you!)
As the New York elite argued that they couldn’t afford to allow more immigrants to reach American shores, my heart clenched. They accused the incoming immigrants of freeloading and taking jobs from “real” Americans, who are, according to Senator Walker, “Those of us who were born here.” Now, where have I heard that before? Even the established elite families in this country are descended from immigrants, or rather, the “pioneers” that took advantage of the New World; Liberty pointed this out to Mrs. Schuyler and Senator Walker, who refused to give out charity-- they even did a tango about it.
Liberty wasn’t just about immigration, a Mohawk iron worker told Liberty that the land they were on used to belong to his tribe. He came from the reservation in upstate New York just to work in this place that was his home, but not really his home. I thought it was important that the play addressed the experiences of people of varying backgrounds. Even Emma Lazarus, who came from what was regarded as a respectable wealthy Jewish family, or in other words, they weren’t like the “others.” Again I say: now, where have I heard that before?
Ms. Lazarus was a poet, you may or may not know her for the sonnet she wrote that is currently on display on the Statue of Liberty's pedestal. In the play, she helped new immigrants learn English, although it was supposed to be beneath someone of her standing. Ms. Lazarus’s poem, and Joseph Pulitzer's promise to publish the name of every person who donates to building Liberty’s pedestal help raise the funds until Liberty finally could have her own place and purpose in the world.
Starting her journey alone, Liberty was initially unsure how she could make this new land her home. Even though she was supposed to be a statue, her struggle of adapting to a strange place is something many immigrants and their children can understand. The later generations of some immigrated families, like the elite families from the play, think that they’ve been able to stomp out their “otherness” and can truly call such a place their only home. However, we should never forget the hardships our parents or our great-great-great-great grandparents had to endure before they came to the U.S., or what they faced as they pursued a better life for themselves and their children and their children’s children.
Some people are lucky enough to know their stories began on a trip to Ellis Island. But others have stories that began on an unknown cargo ship, or a poorly documented quest for El Dorado-- which, according to my mom, is one reason Indians came to Guyana many years ago: the promise of finding a land of gold. I crave to know these parts of my ancestry, to understand how they have contributed to who I really am, and if I still belong to these places. We don’t all know exactly why we ended up where we did, but I think we can all understand the need to have a place to call home.