There is much to ponder, and much to absorb, in Rowing to America: The Immigrant Project, the collage of one-act plays being presented by the Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville Department of Theater and Dance. Yet what is most striking about the evening is what is not here. Not once in nine one-acts, written by nine different playwrights, do we hear the hackneyed phrase "melting pot." Nor in two hours of theater does anyone refer to those dusty words at the base of the Statue of Liberty, best read through rose-colored glasses: "Give me your tired, your poor ..." Even more intriguing, there is not a single reference to Ellis Island, that onetime doorway to America that continues to symbolize a distant era when this country -- hard to believe now -- actually welcomed immigrants.
In fact, only one of the nine plays -- an account of the severing of two sisters in Ireland -- concerns an immigrant who might have passed through Ellis Island, back at the turn of the 20th century when America was receiving as many as 11,000 nameless and renamed citizens in a single day.
Two of these plays predate Ellis Island. One deals with slaves shipped from Africa three centuries ago; another alludes to the mid-19th-century Trail of Tears, when Cherokee Indians in Georgia were forced to relocate to Oklahoma. Taken together, these pieces provide a stark reminder that the definition of immigration does not include the word "voluntary."
But for the most part, the plays are here and now, peopled by a new breed of savvy immigrants from Afghanistan, India, Central America. The one-acts, though often amusing, are also uniformly devoid of sentiment. Apparently it's no longer in vogue (for playwrights, if not for immigrants) to describe the American adventure, pockmarked though it may be, in terms that incite an emotional response.
Rowing to America, which was commissioned five years ago by the ever-ambitious Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, is a worthy experiment. If, unsurprisingly, the result is mixed, charge that to the form: A one-act play is limited in scope; an evening of one-acts -- especially when written by different writers -- is going to be hard pressed to offer anything resembling a common thread. Ultimately, watching this evening of plays is akin to watching an all-star baseball game: Although the nine writers share an undeniable abundance of talent, the final, episodic result does not jell into a cohesive team effort. Instead of cumulative truths, you receive glimpses and snapshots. Yet among those glimpses and snapshots, there is much to recommend.
In his notes, William Grivna explains that his young student cast -- instead of assuming fake dialects and ethnicities -- did their best to be true to the spirit of each play. The wisdom behind this decision is made manifest in "Homeland," which dissects the fear and insecurity of Keiko, a young Japanese mother overwhelmed by her new high-tech life in California. As Keiko, Whitney M. Elmore is wonderfully moving without ever attempting to "be" Japanese.
Curiously, the evening's most hypnotic entry is the title play, "Rowing to America" -- curiously because I'm not even sure which nationality is being depicted. The playwright, Kitty Chen, was born in China and has written about Korea -- yet the slides on the rearview projection screen are of Vietnam. Perhaps the play's protagonist, identified simply as Girl, is intended to personify all Asian women.
Whoever Girl is, as portrayed by the radiant Natasha M. Baumgardner, she's a character to cherish. Baumgardner delivers one of those rare, unpredictable performances theatergoers always yearn for but so rarely see: Here is an ideal amalgam of playwright and performance. To this blend add the enthusiasm of a captivated audience -- and suddenly the old cliché "melting pot" assumes a revelatory relevance. What a surprise to realize that although American society is too abrasive to ever function as a melting pot, memorable theater cannot exist without it.
For too many of us, the Mississippi River is as great a barrier as any ocean. It would take an act of forced emigration to get us over to Edwardsville. That's too bad, because the journey to SIU-Edwardsville is surprisingly easy, the campus is in spring bloom, the Dunham Hall Theater is as comfortable as any auditorium in the St. Louis area and this evening of one-acts is original and thought-provoking. And if all that isn't enough to entice you, there's the lure of theater magic in that gem of a performance by Natasha Baumgardner.