It happened a century ago, but the terrible memories remain seared into our collective consciousness. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire on the Lower East Side, in which 146 Jewish and Italian garment workers died, was a defining event in the history of immigrant life — and death — in New York.
Now comes Barbara Kahn’s new musical drama, “Birds on Fire,” based on the unidentified victims of the fire. The production, which has a cast of 10, opens next Thursday at the Theater for the New City in the East Village. Gusta Johnson, Tommy Kearney, Anna Podolak, and Amanda Yachechak are featured in the cast.
Kahn has written many plays for the Theater for the New City, including last year’s “The Spring and Fall of Eve Adams,” about a Polish Jewish lesbian who operated a notorious speakeasy and tearoom on MacDougal Street. Kahn, who has penned more than three dozen works, is often drawn to historical subjects, as in her 2004 musical “Pyrates! The Courtship Chronicles,” in which an 18th-century Sephardic Jewish pirate has his own colorful Caribbean odyssey.
As reported just a few weeks ago in The New York Times, amateur genealogist Michael Hirsch recently tracked down the real identities of the six unidentified victims of the 1911 fire. But Kahn invents her own names, faces and life histories for these victims, and she uses their stories to symbolize the ways in which so many immigrants’ lives were swallowed up by endless toil and broken dreams.
Like Rinne Groff’s “Compulsion” at the Public Theater, which uses marionettes to represent Anne Frank and the members of her family, “Birds on Fire” also uses puppets — life-size puppets to play those in power (such as the factory owner, architect and city alderman) and shadow puppets to convey the sense of a crowd at Coney Island. Allison Tartalia’s music is inspired by the distinctive sounds of sewing machine treadles, heavy machinery and, of course, by the sounds of the fire itself.
Kahn told The Jewish Week that she is absorbed by the question of how factory employees did the same simple task over and over again for years at a time. “What does that do to a human being?” she asks. “How did they keep their minds from wandering, and losing either their jobs or their lives?”
The title of the play is a reference both to the women who jumped to their deaths, and to the overall situation of immigrant women who, like brave hummingbirds, flew forwards into America rather than allowing themselves to be pushed backward into the past.
“I try to put a human face on facts,” Kahn said. “They came from somewhere — they had goals, they had desires, they had things they wanted to do. Everything that they had and everything that they wanted to have was lost.”
“Birds on Fire” opens March 17 and runs through April 3 at the Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. at 10th St. Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. For tickets, $12, call the box office at (212) 254-1109 or visit www.theaterforthenewcity.net.