In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month and emphasizing the importance of being prepared for a professional world, LaGuardia Community College (LAGCC) welcomed Angie Cruz on October 31st in the E-building’s Poolside Café. Ms. Cruz, who previously visited the campus in 2017, is an Associate Professor at the University of Pittsburgh, writer of short stories and […]
The audience’s seats are arranged in two rows that arch in a semi-circle. The curve of the two rows resembles a train track. Intentional? Perhaps. Eight performers are illuminated by the industry standard gobos as well as various spotlights. Smiles shine from the actors’ faces, which are locked on the audience as they fill the “train tracks.”
On Wednesday April 18th, 2018, the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center welcomed an intimate, diverse audience of nearly 50 people consisting of students, faculty and the general public, in the Main Stage Black Box theatre, and treated them to a performance of Songs About Trains, a work-in-progress.
A cost of $5 per ticket allowed you “on-board” the performance that was created by Radical Evolution, a production company founded in 2011 that is, according to their website, “committed to creating artistic events that seek to understand the complexities of the mixed-identity existence in the 21st Century.”
The play was directed by Rebecca Martinez and Taylor Reynolds, and was part of the 5th annual Rough Draft Festival, which aims to celebrate diverse, artistic pieces still under development. The festival boasts financial support from noteworthy organizations such as Drama League, The Howard Gilman Foundation, NY Culture, Mertz Gilmore, CUNY Dance Initiative, and Carnegie Hall.
Using only music, punctuated with railroad proclamations, and archived letters written by the workers, the play tells a truly American story that depicts the arrival of African-Americans as well as immigrants from China, Mexico, and Ireland, all hoping to share in the grand dream of the Transcontinental railroad. By sharing these letters that were intended for friends and families, the cast and directors have invited the audience into the lives of the people that helped build the railroad that subsequently built America.
Constructed between 1849 and 1930, the epic Transcontinental railroad connected the East and West coasts of the United States. This revolutionary North American endeavor came at a cost, namely the livelihood of laborers who sacrificed a great deal to claim their stake in “The American Dream.”
Another result of the building of the Transcontinental railroad was the decimation of the Native American population, an issue that is not addressed in the play. “[The Native American] narrative is something we are very aware is missing from this, and we are actively seeking to incorporate it,” answers co-director Ms. Reynolds to a question posed by an audience member during an informal Q&A session after the performance. “That is definitely a hole in the play that we are looking to fill.”
Though ethnically, culturally, and geographically diverse, the play’s ambitious characters (portrayed by the same actors throughout) share their daunting experience as they embark on a journey across the U.S.
The play begins with an actress belting out “Life is like a Railway” – the opening number. Her voice is precise, controlled, and easily fills the wide, high-ceilinged theatre. The ensemble joins in: harmonies weave amongst each other, and an electric and acoustic guitar, a bodhran (traditional Irish frame drum), a cajon (Peruvian percussion box), and a violin join forces to create an upbeat, joyful tone worthy of an addition to the soundtrack of the Coen brothers’ “O Brother Where Art Thou?”
The percussion and guitars are played at half volume while a woman in a blue plaid shirt and one green Dr. Martin shoe begins to speak. “Imagine this building isn’t a building, but is whatever it was before – maybe a farm” she says in a youthful, almost serene tone. She locks eyes with each audience member. “Imagine it is the home for the original caretakers of this land. We dedicate these songs to them.”
A second woman in a long skirt and vivid red lipstick steps forward and adds in a stunning Spanish accent: “Now imagine yourself far away from home, imagine there was sea between you and anything you knew, arriving with nothing but a dream to be something more than you know.”
A man still armed with his script in hand, asks us to imagine a world where ink or paper does not fade or yellow with age, allowing us to share stories with our grandchildren and generations after them. “We imagine it would go a little like this,” he says as the ensemble jumps back into a full-volume rendition of “Life is Like a Railway.”
The production is divided into eight sections. “Vision/Progress/Hope,” which highlights the perceived prosperity of the railroad, is the first section, and consists of traditional folk songs that elicit smiles between cast members, and whoop’s and yeeha’s from the audience members.
Section II, “Finding the Workers” and Section III “The Work/The Task,” tells of the darker side of the workers’ railroad adventure.
The production takes a slight turn at this point: the mood sobers and the smiles fade. A bluesy “Lining the Track” has the audience shifting forward in their seats. Rubbing the goose bumps from their skin and petting the lump in their throats back down after hearing the workers’ heart-wrenching struggles of disease, death, poor working conditions, poor compensation, and missing the loved ones they had left back home.
The hardships and issues are further explored through Section IV, V and VI, but is splintered by the hilarious song titled “Casey Jones – The Union Scab,” a song about the creative ways the workers dream of killing the lone man, Casey Jones, who worked while the others struck. The comical element is perfectly placed, and allows for a breath of fresh air after the prior onslaught of emotion.
The comedy additionally sets a suitable point from which to bring the audience back down into the despair evoked in Section VII, specifically in “Old John Henry Died on the Mountain,” a performance lead and commanded by Darrel J. Hunt. His liquid-silver voice glides across the audience while he rhythmically beats his chest in time with the percussion, leaving an imprint on the silent audience.
The final and eighth section, “The Legacy/Hope,” marks the return of the performers’ grins, the hop-skip-jump beat of the cajon, and a sense of pride for what has been accomplished. “Could it have happened differently? Could there have been a better way? All we can say is that folk songs are worn out of what was, not what could have been,” says the railroad announcer before the final song. Her tone is triumphant, optimistic, and inspiring. This history is painful, but with the help of these songs, the stories shall never be forgotten.
“Wasbash Cannonball,” the final song, is brief, but lifts the room as cast members urge the audience to join in on the rhythmic clapping, which ultimately transpires into an extended round of applause and standing ovation as the play comes to an end.
Songs About Trains is an inspirational play that sheds light on a flash of U.S. history, and what could be described as the origins of “The American Dream” as well as the immigrant story. The play could not have nestled in the hearts of a more appropriate college, as LaGuardia Community College celebrates its diversity and nurtures a generation determined to create a new meaning of “The American Dream.”