Pull the Strings of Our Hearts
By Iride Aparicio
Photo Credit: Kevin Berne
Mountain View, CA – “RAGS,” with book by JOSEPH STEIN, Music by CHARLES STROUSE, and lyrics by STEPHEN SCHWARTZ, is a musical about immigrants, which may be all of us, because according to Christian Bibles from different denominations, each one of us living on earth is as “an immigrant”, because heaven is our “home”.
Thinking away from the boundaries of religion, an immigrant, is a person who leaves his or her own country or “home” to move to another country, and during the years, l910-1911, here in America, the message of the New Colossus (as the statue of Liberty was called) “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, “ (Emma Lazarus November 2, l883) spread to the European world with silent lips, and they started coming.
Thousands came by boat. Those approved to enter the country spend from two to five hours in precessing. Among the questions asked from them were their names, their occupation or trade and how much money they had. (they needed the equivalent of $600.00 in today’s money.
“RAGS” opens in New York Harbor in l910 at a time of a boat arrival. We see the statue of Liberty standing in the background and hear the tenor’s voice of a homesick immigrant (BENJAMIN PITHER) singing I Remember, a pleasant tune in which he talks about the times when he and his wife were together. The song is followed by a choir.
Our protagonists are Russian Jews, who came together in the same boat.
The cast of RAGS representing Refugees from Eastern Europe
There is Ben (TREVIS LELAND) on the Left of the picture carrying a briefcase, who as a salesman. He already has a job waiting for him in America. He is going to sell cigars. During the trip, young Ben had fallen in love with Bella (JULIE BENKO) third from the left front. Standing Behind Bella, dressed in black with hat, is AVRAN (DONALD CORREN) her father, who is coming to America to live with his sister and husband.
The handsome little boy standing in the center of the picture is David Hershkowitz (JONAH BROSCOW) who with her mother Rebecca (KYRA MILLER) came to join his father in the United States.
The conflict starts when they began being processed by State Officials just across the street in Lower Manhattan, and Rebecca’s husband does not come to the pier to greet his family. Just when the New York Port authorities are going to return her to where she came from, Bella (BENKO) who has befriend her on the boat, feeling sorry for her, tells the authorities that Rebecca and David, her son, are part of her family and invites them to come to live with them.
During the rest of the musical, masterfully directed by Theatre Works Artistic Director ROBERT KELLEY, and brought to life by the realistic interpretations of the characters by the actors, we see different experiences of the group while living in America.
Because they are poor, they are “forced” by necessity to live in tenements on New York East Side (the Hester/Suffolk Street) of Jewish Ghettos.
The new land did not offer much to people like them, who had little education and could not speak the language. So Avran (CORREN) finds work selling pots from a cart, discovering that “to be protected” has to pay a group of goons 25 cents (a day’s earning for some of them) a month, and when David (BROSCOW) the kid who helped him sell his pans and pots refuses to pay, The goons beat him up.
While still waiting for her husband, Rebecca (Miller) ends working in a sweatshop. Forced to work hard for long hours and even on Sundays.
The sweatshop with Rebecca (MILLER) standing up
And because “RAGS” is well written (STEIN) the play allows the audience to get to know the characters, experience their experiences and even see how living in America changes the roles or Jewish women and even the religious rituals of the Jewish people.
Nathan Hershkowits (NOEL ANTHONY) Rebecca’s husband, for instance, Americanized his name, goes to work for an Irish Catholic politician, and calls David his son YANKEE BOY.
AVRAN, pays a very high price for trying to force his Jewish traditions to his daughter. Rebecca, becomes independent enough to learn to fight for what she now believes is right.
Sweatshop workers on the Picket Line
As a musical RAGS is realistic. In their performances the actors were capable to move the audience. If not memorable, the music in RAGS is pleasant, and conducted by WILLIAM LEBERATORE, played in perfect tune by the orchestra. MILLER’s voice is marvelous, BROSCOW’s voice well tuned, and all the male soloist sang in well trained voices.
The stories in RAGS make us become aware that many of those Immigrants who came to America since the late l800s, looking for the freedom to worship as they wanted,, or to work, or simply tired or wars and looking for peace, are the ones who made the United States of America what it is now, with their music, the books they wrote, their, art, their dances, and with the variety of their ideas. They reminded us that as different as we may look physically now, if we look back into our past, we may find our that many of us have something in common: we descended from those immigrants.
RAGS will continue playing at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts until April 30.To order tickets go online toTheatreWorks.org or call (650) 463-l960.