PRINCETON, N.J. (AP) – In 1921, Congress passed an emergency immigration law limiting the number of foreigners allowed into the United States based on their country of birth, a fearful backlash to the increasing numbers of Poles, Greeks and Italians who arrived in America after World War I.
In response, American composer Cole Porter – best known as a composer and songwriter – wrote a rare ballet in 1923 criticizing America’s hostile stance toward immigrants.
Nearly a century later, the ballet is being revived by a Princeton University music professor troubled by President Donald Trump’s actions on immigration. On Thursday, the school will debut its modernized version of Porter’s “Within the Quota.”
The ballet is one of several productions happening across the country in reaction to the administration’s immigration policy, including a Boulder, Colorado, play featuring immigrants and immigration officers and a Los Angeles play touching on themes of terrorism and immigration detention centers.
They are part of a long history of art as a form of activism and political resistance that can help people connect the struggles of the moment with the struggles of the past, said Sarah J. Jackson, a communications studies professor at Northeastern University.
“Art is a form that can often reach people that might not engage in more traditional spaces of politics or activism,” Jackson said. “Most people will never lobby at a statehouse for a bill, or go to a rally or protest in their life. With theater and other forms of art, you’re bringing people into a space and introducing them to a set of ideas in a thought-provoking way without doing the thing they might be uncomfortable with – making it an explicitly political space.”
“Building the Wall,” written by playwright Robert Schenkkan, imagines the country under Trump’s campaign promise to detain immigrants living in the country illegally. The play also features post-show conversations including discussion of Los Angeles as a sanctuary city, women in the Trump era and a panel on immigrant rights.
In Boulder, Colorado, “Do You Know Who I Am?” features local law enforcement and six immigrants not in the country legally performing together. Participants said the play aims to build a bridge between the two groups. Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett, one of the players, said he was discouraged by the 2016 presidential election and its impact on the immigrant community.
“We hope the performance will continue to send the message that if you’re a human being, you deserve the protection of law enforcement” regardless of one’s immigration status, Garnett said.
Filmmaker and activist Michael Moore will also bring a one-man show taking on Trump to Broadway this summer. Also planned for Broadway is a revival of Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People,” about a well-meaning whistleblower later branded as a traitor, and a stage version of “1984,” which also saw a surge in book sales following the 2016 election.
The new production of “Within the Quota” stands as an act of resistance to the nativist calls within the Trump administration, said Simon Morrison, the Princeton music professor who rediscovered the ballet two years ago.
During the election, Morrison said he saw parallels between the climate of the 1920s and today.
“Given the political situation, I realized a complaint against immigration restrictions was apropos,” Morrison said.
The original Cole Porter ballet tells the story of an immigrant landing on Ellis Island, encountering various American characters: an heiress, a cowboy, a jazz musician. The immigrant is met with forces of repression before falling in love with a Hollywood starlet.
In the updated version, the heiress remains, but other caricatures are replaced with roles including a Wall Street banker, the liberal and alt-right media, a Black Lives Matter activist and a heroin addict. The various scenes depict characters in conflict, dancing past each other.
The choreography is meant to symbolize the lack of communication between citizens as a result of the current political climate. The media is also criticized in the ballet, with large mock front newspaper pages featuring satirized political headlines serving as a backdrop on the stage.
Unlike the original ballet, which ends with the protagonist escaping the harsh realities of immigration for a life in Hollywood, the updated version aims for a resolution of our problems.
“It’s not a complaint or a criticism, so much as it is asking, ‘What can we do to work out these radical differences in our society?'” Morrison said.
Associated Press entertainment writer Mark Kennedy in New York contributed to this story.
Errin Haines Whack covers urban affairs for The Associated Press. Follow her work at http://www.twitter.com/emarvelous
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