The Not-So-Melting Pot

The Immigrant

The setting of The Immigrant is quintessentially American in two conflicting yet real ways. Hamilton, Texas, represents the deeply mythic "land of opportunity," where one can arrive with nothing and, with hard work, make a life. An immigrant begins with a banana cart and retires with a successful chain of stores. This is a not-uncommon American success story that still happens today. But the town also embodies the America of xenophobia and prejudice. When Ima discovers that someone has shot a hole in Haskell's fruit-cart sign, she is taken aback. She tries to understand and then tries to apologize for her bigoted neighbors. In the end she can only walk away, embarrassed.

But if blind hope is not the final word, neither is intolerance. The Immigrant succeeds because it does not settle on tragedy or comedy but on reality. In one of the most powerful moments in the play, Haskell and Leah visit Ima and Milton after not having communicated for many years. Milton is completely paralyzed and in a wheelchair. When he and Haskell are left alone together, Haskell expresses regret for having let a difference of opinion sever the friendship. He puts his hand on Milton's leg, and as he stands up and leaves, Milton's hand falls awkwardly to where Haskell's hand was. Milton's face is red and contorted as he makes a futile attempt to speak, but Haskell has gone. This combination of solid writing and intelligent direction gives The Immigrant emotional power. It reflects reality: Sometimes reconciliations come too late. An attempt to connect with another can slip away unseen.

Another interesting note about the play is its effective use of Yiddish early on, when Haskell arrives in Hamilton. Perhaps only in New York, Israel, and South Florida would one find a play that uses Yiddish. The language is highly contextualized with gestures and situation, so there is no obstacle to understanding. On the contrary, the use of Yiddish creates a verisimilitude that mirrors the comedy, frustration, and isolation of learning a new language.

Grant Neale and Patti Gardner are the immigrants of the play, but they're not the only ones assimilating
Grant Neale and Patti Gardner are the immigrants of the play, but they're not the only ones assimilating

South Florida brims with true stories of immigration. In 1909 young Haskell fled Russia and the axiom of the time: "If you love Mother Russia, kill the Jews." Almost one hundred years later at La Iglesia de la Mercedes in Havana, Consuelo Valdez cuts off a handful of hair close to her scalp and places it at the foot of La Caridad del Cobre, Cuba's patron saint. She is fulfilling una promesa, giving thanks, because she has just received news that her 21-year-old daughter made it safely to land near Key West. In Miami, a Haitian immigrant, Jean-Paul Bromier, works all day cleaning office buildings and drives a taxi all night, in hopes of saving money to bring his wife over "the legal way."

People come to the United States in many ways and for many reasons, but one common denominator is desperation, accompanied by unquenchable hope. As Haskell says to Milton, "It feels safe here."

Milton replies, "Yep. I guess we don't get a lot of problems round here."

From that one brief exchange, we realize that their concepts of safety are worlds apart. The same goes for other concepts, such as faith, friendship, and family. Today we are many more Haskells and Miltons in a much smaller space, which makes the title pertinent to all of us on some level, and the play itself all the more relevant.

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