"Cabaret Émigré" by Sophia Romma, originally scheduled for November 2 to 18, will now open November 7 and will add performances November 11, 13 and 14 to make up for lost shows due to Hurricane Sandy. This new play, directed by Charles Weldon, is being presented by Negro Ensemble Company at the Lion Theater, Theater Row.
An emigrant feels like a circus man who is traveling the endless doroga (Russian for "the road.") The sins of your past are inconsequential and your future is in limbo. It's a human condition that is painted poetically in "Cabaret Émigré." The play contains ten Lewis Carroll-style testimonials that are told as cabaret acts by a collection of émigrés who are primarily Russian Jews (like the author), but also include émigrés from Latin America and Africa. All of them have no other motive than to entertain each other and their resulting acts are outrageous and macabre, like a journey down the rabbit hole.
The play is based on interviews that Romma conducted with other émigrés last October in preparation for a play she was drafting for the Women's Initiative (which she founded) of the Dramatists Guild. She started by interviewing people she knew, who were mostly performers. These included young Russian and Ukrainian immigrants, a Mexican friend (known since high school in Long Island) and a Nigerian man she had gone to college with, all of whom referred more émigrés with tales. The stories that appeared presented a similar theme: that of a poet who is prisoner of a soulless existence, suspended in time. It was in keeping with the nature of the first group she interviewed that Romma set the play in a cabaret, where émigrés would amuse each other with stories that sail off into bizarre reflections from the characters' family histories and are scripted in Quantum Verse.
Most of the skits are autobiographical, presenting distorted family histories and twisted memories of those who left their homelands behind. The first performer is a young Jewish comic from St. Petersburg who longs to return there. He is a prisoner of his own rage and has a classic case of an émigré’s nostalgia. The evening's emcees, Jamal and Dasha, are an interracial couple: he is black; she is Russian-Jewish. Their parents disapprove of their love affair and this inspires Dasha to reflect on her grandmother, who loved a Russian paratrooper who was not Jewish. She recreates the badgering her grandmother endured from her own parents over their diner table in Moscow. A man named Lyosha conjures up a nightmare train ride in 1939 where the ticket-master is Stalin, who summons Hitler, the conductor of the train, to the compartment where the Jews are fleeing persecution and war. In another vignette, a Ukrainian Jewish mathemetician who can't find peace in his soul longs for the absolution of Catholic confession and plays out a surreal encounter with a priest. In the Dutch Caribbean, a Mexican man, frightened by the segregation he endured in high school, has been thrown off a sight-seeing boat and is adrift at sea with his Moldavian émigré love interest. They compare their childhoods as they are hopelessly drowning. The following vignette is a Sartre-like encounter of no escape, in which a Gestapo General, Hindlick Muller and his sexy sidekick Fraulein Friesel, are trapped in Hell with a Jewish War World II Soldier and his grandparents. The trials that the Soviet soldier's grandparents faced are revealed to demonstrate how love does not conquer all. In the final vignette, a Nigerian who battles himself in his own head is represented as a boxer, named the Nigerian Butcher, who squares off with an Irish racist tormenter. The skit reflects on bigotry, inhumane intolerance and how an athlete's accomplishments can be disowned by both his native country and his new one.
The émigré experience is one of dislocation, to which Ms. Romma can testify, having emigrated with her mother from Moscow in 1979. "You don't know where your community is," she says. "Where you belong nationally is eradicated. You get confused and dislocated. Every single person I have come across had the same experience." So it is logical that the play's predominant style is Quantum Verse. Ms. Romma, in all of her plays, questions the reality of what is seemingly obvious in our human existence. There is weirdness and absurdity at play which reigns in the quantum universe, as it does in her verse. The play rhymes, but in non sequiturs. There is repartee of indirect associations. Puns are abundant, often extracted into sexual insults. Characters speak in inappropriate Americanisms (like, "Do you accept God's will for you?" "Yes, Holy Roller-ness, I most certainly do.") Ms. Romma employs various languages (Russian, German, Yiddish and French) which are sprinkled throughout the play in order to add flavor to an eclectic cultural presence within Cabaret Émigré. The play is infuriatingly challenging to read, but it makes perfect sense when you watch it performed.