Lincoln Center's Taking on Immigrants

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at


  Immigration is one of the hottest political topics in the nation; it always has been, back to the British who landed at Plymouth and in Virginia in the early days of the seventeenth century. Recently, the 400-year-old issue has heated up again in the dispute over legal versus illegal immigrants. Who is right and to what degrees are they right? Do legal immigrants make good citizens? Do the illegals?

     Queens, a sturdy and often thought-provoking play about the issue, just opened at the Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center, in New York. The cutting edge and hard-hitting drama by Martyna Majok tells the story of several generations of immigrants, all of them women in an all-woman cast, who move in and out of a house in the New York suburb of Queens, perhaps the largest haven of immigrants of all stripes in the United States. The women, hard to tell if they are legals or illegals, wind up at the door of Renia, an immigrant herself, who moved into that same house sixteen years ago, taking her place in the always over-crowded basement.  She found it to be a good hiding place as well as a home and opened up the basement to dozens of immigrants like herself over the years. She eventually purchased the house, gained her U.S. citizenship and even gave basement rooms to young girls from abroad, from Honduras to the Ukraine, who could not afford the rent.

    She did a good thing, right? Well, the playwright suggests, maybe not. What is the reward for helping all those women in a country so attuned to the problems of immigration. Is she the winner or the loser, the heroine or the criminal? Was there a cost to bear? How about her daughter, whom she left back in the Ukraine and has not seen in sixteen years? How about her friends from home, now living in America, whom she has shunned? What about all the lying to the government? The overcrowded basement, that sustained the old argument that 100 illegals share a room? The women she felt compelled to kick out, who begged her to let them stay because they had nowhere else to go? Was it all worth it? Was America worth it?

    Her story started when she arrived in the U.S. and joined a basement band of women from Russia, Afghanistan and Honduras. They discussed all of their problems – discrimination, prosecution, lack of a job, no relatives and no friends. They stick together at first, but then they drift apart. Then Renia decides to try to buy the house and open the door to hordes of illegal women who had just arrived in America, or just arrived at her doorstep.

    Queens, smartly directed by Danya Taymor, starts off very slowly and it is difficult to understand the accents of the women, but you do after ten or fifteen minutes. They all want the same thing – acceptance and happiness in a new country far from their birthplace. They all recite our historic manta, that in the United States the streets are paved with gold for new arrivals.

   Let’s stop here and take a big historic step backwards. Everything these girls want in America are the same things immigrants have wanted for four centuries. The doors of America were flung open to their forebears, despite numerous problems. It is a great look into the past. Then, though, the story changes. Those new arrivals a hundred years ago, or two hundred years ago, had a home when they arrived – relatives or a spot in an ethnic enclave. They were slowly assimilated. They went to the movies, cheered the home team at the baseball game and learned to enjoy reading paperbacks. That is not so for the most recent immigrants, the playwright argues. She says that many of today’s men and women do not have relatives or an ethnic neighborhood in which they can find a home as easily as immigrants did a century ago. 

 The anguish of the mom from Honduras who just must go back home to be with her daughter? The young woman from the Ukraine who arrived at Renia’s door and believes that she is her mom? The woman from Kabul, hiding in city after city, afraid of being arrested, terrified of being sent back to that battle torn country?

    The playwright is asking for some breaks for these women. They are trying to make it, whether here or back home, for themselves and their children. There is the hint, too, that none of them are getting much help from their men. It is not a cry for help, but strong and persuasive argument that America needs to understand this new plight of immigrants, particularly women.

 The actresses in the play do a fine job of portraying distraught immigrants. They are Sarah Tolan-Mee (Inna), Jessica Love (Pelagiya), Nadine Malouf (Aamani), Nicol Villamil (Isabela), Zuzanna Szadkpwski (Agata) and Andrea Syglowski (Lera). Ana Reeder is superb as Renia.

    One thing that is missing from the play is a better sense of history and the immigrants story in America. Except for native Americans, we are all immigrants; our ancestors all came from somewhere else. There should be some dialogue in the play that explains that. Why did women from Kabul and Kiev and Honduras come here and not Uruguay? There are a lot of reasons and the characters in the story should have mentioned them and added some history of immigration in the past.

    Another problem with the play is that it is confusing at times. There is a scene with Inna back in the Ukraine that makes no sense and we learn, at the very last minute, with no back story, how Renia bought The house. These are small bumps in the road, though.

     Majok wants a new and better world for women. Don’t we all?

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by Lincoln Center. Sets: Laura Jellinek, Costumes: Kaye Voyce, Lighting: Matt Frey, Sound: Stowe Nelson. The play is directed by Danya Taymor. It runs through March 25.

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