5 of the Best Plays About the Immigrant Experience

by Alexis Roblan

Portland Center Stage  / Creative Commons

Portland Center Stage / Creative Commons

Immigration has been a subject of art and storytelling for as long as stories and borders have existed. One of the most fundamentally dramatic human experiences, the act of moving one’s whole life to another country or continent brings with it a wide range of emotions, opportunities, and obstacles, which are the natural stuff of great theatre. Plays about immigration have long offered insights into culture, identity, family ties, and more, and particularly in America—a nation of immigrants—they have been a key part of the theatrical conversation for many decades, written by some of our most celebrated dramatists. As a legal writer here and also a playwright, I offer the following list of five incredible plays that tackle immigration or the immigrant experience as their subject; a selection that hints at the wide variety of stories there are to tell, and the differing ways that artists have approached them.

1.  Ragtime by Terrence McNally (book), Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), and Stephen Flaherty (music)

One of the breakout Broadway musicals of the late 1990s, Ragtime won four Tony Awards when it premiered in 1998, including Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Musical Score. Set in early twentieth century New York, the action follows three groups of people: an upper-class white Protestant family in New Rochelle, New York, represented by Mother, the family matriarch; African Americans in the Harlem Renaissance, represented by Coalhouse Walker Jr., a musician; and Eastern European immigrants, represented by Tateh, a Jewish widower just arrived from Latvia with his young daughter.

Beginning at Ellis Island, Tateh’s journey starts out with hope and anxiety that soon turns to despair as his daughter becomes ill, and he cannot afford to care for her on his meager earnings selling silhouettes from a street corner cart. The story of Ragtime, however, is the story of the American capacity for reinvention. Not only does Tateh find within himself a passion and potential that leads to career success, but the musical ends with the creation of an entirely new kind of multicultural American family when Tateh marries Mother, joining their two families, and adopts Coalhouse Walker Jr.’s son, who has been orphaned. The message is clear: America flourishes through the mixing of different cultures, races, and classes. This is the classic immigration story at its most optimistic. With singing.

2.  Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill

CHRIS DRUMM  / Creative Commons

CHRIS DRUMM / Creative Commons

Winner of four Pulitzer Prizes in addition to the Nobel Prize for Literature, Eugene O’Neill is often considered America’s foremost dramatist, the father of modern playwriting. He was also the son of Irish immigrants, and his masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, is the most autobiographical of any of his plays, at least in terms of the characters’ circumstance. While the play has many themes, and is perhaps most overtly concerned with addiction and illness, its handling of the immigrant experience is particularly nuanced and pervasive.

Long Day’s Journey is the story of a single family, the Tyrones, over the course of a day, and every character in the family, as well as their maid and neighbor, can be viewed as representing a different stage of assimilation into mainstream American culture. James Tyrone, the father, is a first generation immigrant, balancing success in his new country with pride in the traditions, identity, and church of his homeland.

In largest contrast, his sons, Jamie and Edmund, have purposely rejected their Irish roots and replaced them with fully American cultural touchstones—a constant source of conflict between Jamie, the eldest, and James throughout the text. While rarely brought up overtly, the story of this generational conflict is told through subtle familial jabs, teasing, and small outbursts, the way most family conflicts are experienced—making it a particularly resonant portrayal of these intimate relationships, and especially those that have been built in a new country.

3.  FOB by David Henry Hwang

Similar to Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but much more direct in its tackling of these themes, Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang’s Obie Award-winning play, FOB, examines the different stages of generational assimilation experienced by immigrant families and communities. Hwang is one of the American theatre’s most revered and widely produced contemporary writers, and FOB was Hwang’s first play, premiering in 1980.

Set in a Chinese restaurant in southern California, the play takes its name from a slur often directed at newly arrived Asian immigrants—the same term the ABC sitcom, Fresh Off the Boat, takes its title from. Magical and non-naturalistic, FOB’s characters are both normal Chinese-American college students and mythic Chinese warriors and gods, who have lived through every wave of Chinese immigration to America, and the entirety of history before the start of this epoch. With humor and theatricality, FOB explores the conflicts between newly-arrived Chinese immigrants and their predecessors, the desire for and fear of assimilation, and the changing nature of the “Fresh Off the Boat” stereotype in times when it has required a great deal of money to emigrate.

4.  Letters From Cuba by Maria Irene Fornés

Born in Havana, Cuba, Maria Irene Fornés immigrated to the United States with her mother and sister in 1945, at age fourteen, and became a US citizen in 1951. She was heavily involved in the avant garde Off-Off-Broadway theatre movement of the 1960s, and has had an influential decades-long career as an important Cuban-American and feminist voice in the American theatre. Her last play, Letters From Cuba, premiered in 2000 and is the only play that she acknowledges as somewhat autobiographical, though it is far from simply that.

Taking place in both Cuba and New York, simultaneously, the title comes from letters read aloud throughout the play between Fran, a Cuban-American dancer living in New York, and her brother Luis, who still lives in Cuba. While playing with different forms of love—familial, romantic, and other—between Fran and Luis, Fran and her male roommates, Luis and his son Enrique, the center of the play is the brother-sister relationship which exists in a sort of spiritual closeness despite their worlds moving at different paces. Unlike the other plays on this list, Letters From Cuba is delicate and bittersweet, allowing for the experience of ties that exists beyond the borders of nation-states.

5.  Medea by Euripides

The statue of Medea in Batumi.

The statue of Medea in Batumi.

Finally, we’ll end with a play that most people probably know, but few have thought of as an “immigration play.” The oldest plays in the Western canon are the ancient Greek tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and Euripides’ Medea is certainly the most popular and widely produced of these in modern times. Part of the reason for this modern popularity is a sense that the emotions of this story, though heightened to the levels of Greek tragedy, are supremely modern and relatable. People move much more than they used to, and can conceive of leaving their families and homelands to be with someone they love, to build a family in a new land and hope for it to flourish.

This is the story of Medea, a princess of Colchis, who leaves her family and kingdom to return to Corinth with her love, Jason. In a new land, completely isolated from her loved ones and culture, Jason then abandons her for a more politically-advantageous marriage. She responds by murdering the two children she has with Jason to avenge the betrayal. While this response is certainly heightened and horrific to meet the standards of Greek tragedy, it is worth noting that the betrayal itself is heightened by Medea’s experience as an immigrant. This is further explored in a recent adaptation of the classic text: Mojada by Luis Alfaro, which translates the character of Medea into a quiet Mexican seamstress living without legal immigration status in a modern day American city (Alfaro has so far set versions in both Chicago and Los Angeles for specific regional productions), isolated by her legal status and afraid to leave the house, and troubled by her husband’s shifting affections.

Art exists to help us make sense of the experiences that shape our lives, and the experience of immigration involves nearly every aspect of life—from relationships, to identity, language, fears, hopes and dreams. These plays explore each of these subjects eloquently and with great impact, from their own vantage points.