Written by Sarah Jones, “Bridge & Tunnel” is a pastiche of the rich multiculturalism living and breathing in New York City. In it, one woman (here, an oh-so-wonderful Karen Stephens) brings to the stage the voices of 14 distinctly different but all acutely articulate people. They have met under a sign that reads: “I.A.M.A.P.O.E.T.T.O.O” — Immigrant and Multiculturalist American Poets or Enthusiasts Traveling Toward Optimistic Openness.
The location is a subterranean spot in South Queens, near JFK airport. Each character comes to the stage and reveals truths about their lives that make you giggle, nod in understanding or even cry in empathy for their human plight.
When looking at the form and content of the play, having one woman become all these characters speaks to the shared realities — the many voices in one humanity. Moreover, director/designer Allen Cornell uses the motif of “foundation” in this show. Bricks, columns and substructure form the background and sides. The unmistakable metaphor here speaks to the immigrant as laying America’s foundation.
But it is the inhabitants of the stage which resonate. And Stephens does that with terrific talent and ability. She adroitly takes the audience into the lives of a wide range of American immigrants. In each brief portrait (the show runs, uninterrupted for 85 minutes), she brings deep, well rounded respect. We get to know each character intimately.
It begins with Muhammad Ali, the thumbs-up optimistic Pakistani host who, we quickly learn, will probably be deported after having been a solid American citizen for more than 20 years. He understands the Homeland Security worry, he says, but do not worry, he tells his wife, America is good and just. But we fear bad news awaits him the next day.
He introduces the first poet, Lorraine Levine, a Jewish woman who immigrated from Lithuania in the ’30s. She recounts times when she dealt with bigotry and then reads her sardonic poem, “No, really, please don’t get up.” Stephens then turns into an angry young Vietnamese man, then a sweet Jamaican woman whose hysterical poem recounts the frigid day she moved to New York. Then there is Juan Marin, a union organizer who now uses a wheelchair. “The scaffold wasn’t strong enough to hold up all that immigrant hope,” he says.
There are more, including a little 11 year-old girl who delights in her poem about growing up, a Chinese American woman who learns to accept her daughter’s lesbianism and a Haitian woman whose poem “God Bless America,” praises America for its big heart.
Indeed, all this introspection on the part of these characters evokes the same in the audience. It makes you wonder how many more poems we might all hear that speak to our shared deeper longings, fears, frustrations, hopes.
Riverside’s audiences responded enthusiastically to the show’s opening night. That should be a good, positive cue to Cornell that they want more. Moving an audience is always the mark of good drama, well written and well done.
Photo by Dusty Terrell
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Bridge & Tunnel” runs through April 29 at Riverside Theatre, 3250 Riverside Drive, Vero Beach. Curtain is 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $40. Call 772-231-6990 or visit www.riversidetheatre.com.