I recently heard a geneticist on the radio talking about the scientific consensus that there are no categorical genetic differences between races or ethnicities. Those physical characteristics that we ascribe to a particular group are merely cosmetic in nature, he explained, and of very recent origin. Human beings are human beings, he stated unequivocally; and that seemed perfectly reasonable to me.
But then he took it a step further. He suggested that we should stop focusing on racial and ethnic differences and focus instead on our common bond as one species. I think I know where he was coming from in these fractured and divisive times, and I value his scientific objectivity. But at this point in the program, my own inner-critic interrupted the broadcast: “If he’s right, then why did you start the Italian American Theatre of Chicago?” it challenged.
Fair question. So, I thought this might be a good time and place to try to articulate why I think there is a value in creating a theatre based on a particular cultural tradition. I build the case specifically from my own Italian American experience, but I believe it is a “theme with variations” that resonates for every ethnic and racial group.
It goes without saying that we are profoundly shaped by not just the larger society in which we grew up –big city, 20th century America in my case — but also by the family in which we were raised. Those of us raised in Italian American households not too far removed from immigrant parents or grandparents often experienced a conflict, or at least a tension, between the American public part of our lives and the Italian private part, lived in the confines of our homes – usually around the kitchen table.
In school, for example, we tried to be American – like our fair, blue eyed classmates whose families seemed to have stepped out of a TV sit com. We begged our mothers to give us peanut butter and jelly on Friday instead of sardines. We had to convince our parents that Boy Scouts and Brownies were not para-military organizations and that learning to swim was not a guarantee of disease or drowning. But as much as we tried, we knew there was something different about us and that something was our Italian background.
It took years for me and I suspect for many of us to appreciate how valuable that heritage was to who we became. Not everything about it was rosy; some lessons were as bitter as the ever-percolating coffee on the stove. Other lessons were more like the “dago red” fermenting in the basement, gaining flavor and potency in the dark. And still others were all sweetness and light, like the trays of dolci that appeared at holidays and weddings.
But why bring these experiences and memories to the stage? For me the answer lies in the power of theatre to connect. When we transform our memories into dramatic art, we connect not only with each other as Italian Americans, but with our genetically indistinguishable brothers and sisters of every race and nationality. We turn the spotlight on our common bonds rather than our cosmetic differences.
Following the first performance of Roxanne Christofano Pilat’s, “Piano, Piano: Stories from my Father,” I was struck by how many people stopped to tell me that Rocco’s Italian story was just like their Irish story, or their Jewish story, or their Polish story. It also occurred to me that I was witnessing what I had been taught long ago in drama class: in the particular is revealed the Universal.
At this moment, in our beloved country, in our broad-shouldered city, we have an opportunity to share our story. If ever we needed to use the power of drama to reach out to our fellow Italian Americans — and to our diverse, beautiful, and talented extended family from every part of the planet, it is now. This is the dish we bring to the banquet of life; and what banquet would be complete without Italian food?
One of my favorite novelists, E. M. Forster, once wrote: “Only connect . . . Connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.” That to me is the power of drama and the real reason for the Italian American Theatre of Chicago.
Auguri a tutti,