Wednesday 19 September 2012

Hard Times

Talk about 40 Shades of Grey! History’s tints are legion and encompass every color in the spectrum.

And yet we often speak of the past as though etched in black and white, untouched by humanity’s imperfect fingers, with the result that inconvenient facts and attitudes are often swept aside.

Take the great mid-19th Century migration of Irish to the US. At such a great remove the ultimate triumph seems inevitable. But oh what suffering these despised immigrants endured to gain a foothold on the slippery and unwelcoming “shores of Amerikay.”

Sick, hungry and baffled by this new bustling, indifferent world many were ripped off at shipside by scurrilous agents (often Irish) promising them safe lodgings. Some, indeed, saw more people on their first day in the US than they had encountered in whole lives spent back in their native countryside.

The sights, sounds, expectations and obligations were unfamiliar and frightening. Unable to support their families, some men cracked under the strain, retreating to shebeens; others fled to more familiar and welcoming rural areas never to return.

This left a surplus of Irish women, some of whom partnered with more affluent African-Americans who held good jobs as waiters, sailors and stevedores. These couples were called “amalgamationists;” for the most part they lived in their own streets and alleys of New York City’s notorious Five Points.

That all changed on July 13, 1863, when the Civil War Draft Riots broke out. These disturbances were sparked by a provision that allowed draftees to buy their way out of the Union Army for a sum of $300.

The tension had been mounting since January when Abraham “Africanus” Lincon had proclaimed the emancipation of slaves in the Confederate states. Unscrupulous Democratic politicians fanned the “unease” by suggesting that the New York City labor market would be flooded by an influx of newly freed slaves.

This is the volatile world I explore in Hard Times, a dramatic musical that opens tomorrow night at The Cell Theatre. For a score I chose mostly Stephen Foster songs since he was present in the Five Points during the riots and writing some of his best, though underappreciated, music.

Foster would die six months later at the age of 37 with 38 cents in his pocket. Some think his death was caused by suicide – his family claimed he fell on a jug and cut his throat in a Bowery rooming house.

I first became attracted to Foster’s music as a teenage guitarist accompanying customers in Wexford pubs. I used to marvel at the latent sadness of Old Folks At Home when delivered by a burly sailor, while a refined old man left dents in my heart from his melancholic delivery of Gentle Annie.

The old Five Points neighborhood is now interred beneath the Foley Square courthouses. Charles Dickens immortalized the area in his American Journals though he disapproved of the fraternization between Irish and African-Americans; nor was he particularly fond of the music they hammered out together, although he did admire their dance steps – these would later morph into Tap dancing.

While creating Hard Times I often walked down the same flagstones of the Bowery that Foster tread upon and wondered about this singular composer. What drove him to live out his days in a pulsing, melting-pot New York slum when he could have enjoyed a comfortable life with his wife and child back in Pittsburgh?

Supposedly he was by then a down and out alcoholic. But drunks don’t churn out 30 songs in a year – especially of the quality of Beautiful Dreamer, one of his last, or the even more haunting Why No One To Love.

The accepted portrait of Foster is that of a self-destructive artist, wan and pensive; but what then to make of a photograph taken of him, hale and hearty weeks before his death with his friend and collaborator, George Cooper?

What was Stephen Foster doing in the Five Points during the riots? Obviously writing – but was he also waiting for someone? We’ll never know for certain but some answers are suggested in Hard Times at The Cell Theatre, 338 W. 23rd St. NYC until Sept. 30th.

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Open The Doors

I spent a couple of weeks in Australia last November working on a musical with Tom Keneally of Schindler’s List fame, an experience in and of itself.

What with jet lag and dealing with a new creative team, I was in Sydney some days before I even noticed the general buoyancy of mood. It was hard to put your finger on it, but this bustling city resembled New York of the Clinton years. It hit home for me just how oppressive our own current recession has become.

There was a can-do attitude in the Sydney summer air that you used to be able to cut with a knife across the length and breadth of the US. This general Australian optimism was spiced by the buoyant voices of young foreigners – many of them Irish.

Back in the 80’s and 90’s, the voices of a previous generation of young Irish were ricocheting around the pubs of Bainbridge Avenue, and on the construction sites and playgrounds of Manhattan.

What a loss! The best-educated generation of Irish people no longer sees the US as a viable emigration option. Now they bestow their talents on European nations, Australia and even Arab emirates; if they think of North America at all, Canada makes more sense.

Are we crazy? The United States is a nation founded by emigrants and nourished by them in successive waves. Now granted we had the tragedy of 9/11and the erection of Fortress America in the Bush years; but even President George W. himself made a sincere effort to enact an Immigration Reform Act before being stymied by his own party.

Although timid and pragmatic to an extreme, the current administration has made some concessions to common sense. President Obama did back the Dream Act and, in a small way, circumvented Congress’s veto thereof by ordering deportation deferral and a two-year work permit for children of undocumented immigrants.

Whatever about their parents, these young people are Americans; they’ve grown up in this country and were educated here. Why waste that investment in some Know-Nothing scheme to “repatriate” them?

In a time of little good news it did the heart good to see the pictures of 13,000 hopeful under-30’s lined up on Navy Pier in Chicago recently to receive help in filling out their immigration papers.

Finally, a dim ray of rationality in a ludicrous situation! The lunacy cuts right across the immigrant board. Where, after all, is the sanity in subsidizing and spending scarce resources to put foreign students through US colleges and then sending them back to their countries the moment they graduate? Give them all green cards, I say! They’ll more than pay their way.

The high-tech boom of the 80’s and 90’s was fueled by foreign STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) graduates. Because of a feckless system of high school education not enough Americans venture into these fields in college, so what’s the solution? Send the foreigners home, even though US industry is crying out for graduates in such fields? Google, Intel, Yahoo and eBay, among others, were founded in part by foreign-born graduates.

Besides, a recent economic survey showed that immigrants are more than twice as likely as American born to start businesses. Stands to reason; if you have the gumption to sell up in your own country and make a new start in the US you’re going to do your damnedest to succeed.

As most Irish born immigrants will testify, when you arrive here you either sink or swim, and even if you have someone at home to call for help, you wouldn’t dream of it because of pride.

Which pretty much puts paid to the whole Nativist idea of the lazy immigrant leeching from generous hosts. I’ve known immigrants from all over the world but never a one that wasn’t hard-working with an eye to making life better for their children.

Apart from Native-Americans we’re all descended from foreigners but US history is strewn with those who as soon as they’ve established themselves wish to pull the ladder up behind them.

It’s time to throw open the doors of Fortress America again, let in some fresh air, and drop the ladder one more time.