It’s not a topic that gets brought up, or talked about very often, or even very openly. It may have something to do with not wanting to look overly “sensitive”, or easily offended, or even critical. But I can guarantee you that, at some time in the lives and experiences of those of us who come from an Italian-American heritage, we find ourselves more than a little bothered.
When is it? What causes this kind of reaction? It’s the way someone from our family background gets depicted in popular culture – be it in feature films, or on television, or as material in a stand-up comedy routine that’s a sure-fire laugh-getter. The men associated with any of these situations are certain to be wearing gaudy gold chains, with a strong chance they’ve got a gun tucked out of sight. The women will likely have teased hair two feet high, provocative apparel and layers of make-up. And their language is liberally sprinkled with obscenities. That’s how the “general public” sees Italian-Americans.
As a proud descendant of immigrants from Italy, and from Sicily, I became aware of this wide-spread practice during my college years. And as a writer, I became even more aware of it as I forged ahead with my career, writing plays, fiction and screenplays. And the more I observed, the more annoyed I became.
I’m not unfamiliar with how categories of people can be [mis]represented. My play “Admissions”, which told the story of seven campus leaders involved in a tuition increase protest, carefully peeled away the assumptions being made about them, exposing prejudices that they had about each other. It became the Best Play winner at the New York International Fringe Festival, and was published by Playscripts.
Now I’m returning to playwriting, following a period writing and producing documentaries for PBS. I have woven into my new play, “Labor Days”, how three generations of an Italian-American family try to cope with changing times, with the clash of cultures, and with the struggles young people have, making their independence known. In this instance, the fact that they have Italian-American ancestry does not set them apart from other families from other backgrounds. In fact, as the play was being developed, test audiences always remarked on how the issues and situations mirrored their own, regardless of what their own personal and family history was.
And I have made a daring decision in the formulation, the structure of the play. Almost always, any play that draws from the playwright’s personal life, from his or her background, the central character is a young man or woman in their late 20’s. This time, though, I’ve decided to tell the stories through a character rarely given much attention in plays, movies or television.
The central character in “Labor Days” is Maria, the grandmother, who came to America as a young child, and has seen and lived through all the trials, all the troubles and all the triumphs her family has endured. She says, at one point in the play: “I’m a little, old Italian lady. Nobody pays us any attention. We are invisible!” For that reason, Maria has been able to observe, without changing the dynamics of her family’s lives. Seeing the world through Maria’s eyes gives the audience a unique perspective, one that I am proud to have created.
During the past two years, as I have polished this play, I have been especially lucky to have one of the great ladies of theatre and television, Rosemary Prinz, offer her time and talents, because she sees this role as an opportunity to present a character unlike any she has played.
However, getting any new play produced can be a major challenge. I have been blessed with getting the volunteer participation of some of the most respected actors in the performing arts, award-winners such as Marsha Mason, James Naughton, Stephen Lang, Ally Sheedy, Len Cariou and Eli Wallach. And despite all my efforts to craft a strong, complex and engaging play, I am struggling to put together the necessary financing to give this play a production.
My goal is to gather the support needed to have a production in place by the end of this year – a big challenge. I’ve been able to get “Labor Days” accepted as a project to receive tax-deductible donations through an arts-supporting organization named Fractured Atlas. Their mission is to provide a legally-constituted umbrella non-profit where money can be accepted on behalf of a project, such as a play, that by itself would not have the ability to do that. Please visit Labor Days – a Fractured Atlas sponsored project. It will explain exactly what to do, so any donation will be administered properly, and the tax deduction process will be put in place.
No one likes to ask for financial help. But the reality is, if I believe in this play, and if I have been shown, through their volunteer participation, that so many esteemed theatre people share my belief in its ability to move people, to depict these three generations of that Italian-American family, and for the play to capture the kinds of failures and successes [with a generous dose of humor] we hope to see in any new play – – well, I must do whatever I can to seek out and find the support it needs. Your kind assistance will never go unappreciated. I thank you for your consideration.