Diversity, then and now

Ringham.jpgEditor’s Note: Eric Ringham oversees the commentary section of MPR News. He’s also active in the Twin Cities theater scene. While in conversation he mentioned to me his experience seeing “Steerage Song” last night, to which I said, ‘hey, you should write that up.’ Kindly, he obliged.


Sometimes, in journalism, the simple selection of a topic constitutes an expression of commentary. That’s the case in “Steerage Song,” a journalistic piece of musical theater – or is it a theatrical piece of musical journalism? – that opened Thursday night at the Fitzgerald.

The point of the commentary is this: The immigrant experience is an abiding piece of the American character, passed down from one generation to the next. Those who dislike newcomers today come from people who once were disliked newcomers themselves. And so it goes, until you reach back as far as the people who were here first.

“Steerage Song,” a production of Theater Latte Da, concerns itself with a brief period that saw an explosion in immigration, roughly 1845 to 1920. A cast of singers and versatile instrumentalists roams through a list of 40 songs and assorted spoken texts, cobbled together by co-creators Dan Chouinard and Peter Rothstein. The show does an effective job of rendering the hopes and fears of that time in the words and songs of the people who lived it.

It’s also effective at getting across the message that a country founded upon immigrants has no business looking down its nose at further immigrants.

For me, the point had a particularly sharp edge. Midway through the first act I thought back to an evening last February, when I watched 250 immigrants from 59 countries take their oaths of citizenship in the same theater. I was there because I knew one of the newcomers, but would have found it moving even if I hadn’t known a soul.

The message of that night last February was the same as the message of “Steerage Song.” We didn’t get here all together, and some of us not by our own will, but we’re a better country because we came from a bunch of different places. Though we seem destined to keep forgetting it, diversity is a strength.

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