Immigrant Tales Hit The Streets

Immigrant Tales Hit The Streets

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

Inspired by immigrant-themed stories from The New York Times from a century ago, Ryan Gilliam and Michael Hickey’s new site-specific musical, “The News,” is running on street corners, parks, and other venues on the Lower East Side. As the audience members, who are wearing special MP3 players, move from one place to the next, the youthful 31-member company (ages 12 to 16) dances to pre-recorded music that only the audience can hear.

Call it all the news that’s fit to stage.

The show, which runs on Saturday afternoons this month, comes as new population statistics show that the percentage of immigrant residents of the city has reached its highest level since 1910.

Gilliam and Hickey, who are married, have written the lyrics and music, respectively, for several street musicals for their company, Downtown Art. They include “The Waistmaker’s Opera,” a 2010 piece based on the downtown garment workers’ strike of 1910 (also being restaged this month), and last year’s “The Great Struggle for Cheap Meat,” based on the kosher meat boycott of 1902.

For “The News,” which is being produced as part of the First Annual Lower East Side History Month, the couple took 10 Times stories from 1914 that cover a diverse array of subjects, including a baby contest, a tenement fire, and the opening of a rooftop garden for the blind. Many of the stories dealt with Jews, who formed the largest immigrant group in the city.
“After a leap of a century,” Gilliam asked, “are we so divorced and disconnected from the past that it’s a completely foreign time?” The answer, she told The Jewish Week, was no. Many issues, including unemployment, crime and the absorption of the foreign-born into American society, persist.

One of her favorite articles concerns the East Side Pageant of Nations, in which immigrant children from local public schools formed a parade, with each child dressing up in the costume of his or her homeland, as the city’s history was told, beginning with the Dutch settlement in the 17th century. The Jews carried Zionist banners and sang Zionist songs.

“The children all waved flags from their respective countries,” Gilliam noted. “And at the end, the Stars and Stripes were raised and all the other flags were lowered.” Among the 15,000 people in attendance was President Woodrow Wilson’s daughter, Margaret.

While Gilliam believes that the contributions of immigrants to American society are still often neglected, she insists that her job is not to preach, but to help the stories to “speak for themselves, and let the audience draw their own connections,” linking the multi-ethnic New York of the early 20th century to the even more global metropolis of the early 21st.

“Lower East Side Stories” runs on Saturdays at 2 p.m. For information and tickets, $10 ($8 for children), visit For more information on the dozens of activities taking place during Lower East Side History Month, visit

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