In the above photo, my grandmother Caroline (wearing a white blouse) sits at a tiny kitchen table surrounded (tightly!) by her immediate and extended family. “Grandma was sick, so we all got together,” my grandmother said. The Proto family regularly squeezed themselves around a table on Friday nights to share in an exorbitant feast.
These sensory memories: the smell of fish and pasta, packing ourselves around a small yet decorative table, hearing my stomach grumble as I waited for what seemed like eternity for dinner to come out of the oven; this is how I remember meals at my grandparents’ house in East Haven, CT. And these memories are the foundation of what I know as my Italian ancestry. It starts and ends at the dinner table, I’d say.
After reading Napoli, Brooklyn, Meghan Kennedy’s stunning new play about an Italian immigrant family making a life in America, I experienced feelings of elation and sadness. The elation came from an immediate sense of connection with the characters and rituals in the play. The Muscolino women are torn between their loyalty to family and their own private aspirations. They oscillate between gracing and cursing God. There is the constant encouragement to just eat already. I understand and connect with that part of my Italian heritage.
The sadness came from the fact that I know very little about my Italian family, for one reason or another. I had heard bits and pieces of history over the years, but never thought to ask further.
Perhaps because I’ve gotten older, or because this play touched me deeply, or because we’re living in a time where some people think immigrants should be banned from this country; perhaps because of all that, I am inspired to start asking. So far, I’ve come up with a short list of answers and a much longer list of questions. I know that my grandmother, Caroline Anastasio, was born and raised in New Haven. Her father, Andrew, worked at the Sargents factory making lock parts, until he was asked to leave because he had a “big mouth.” He moved into construction shortly after. Her mother, Rose, worked at a garment factory making cuffs for men’s shirts. Her parents and grandparents spoke Italian, but refused to teach her and her siblings. I want to know why the Italian language was erased from generation to generation. I want to know what of their dreams were lost or realized in the gap between working to survive and pursuing their passions. I want to know and perfect my grandmother’s elusive meatball recipe.
Because of all this, I am happy to preach the power of theatre and how it can change hearts. The Muscolino family represents all families who uprooted themselves for the chance of a better life. In them, anyone can see glimpses of their parents and grandparents who worked hard to settle in and settle down. It sparked action in me, and I think it could do the same for anyone who has ever wanted to take a closer look at their roots.
Kennedy’s play puts front and center an immigrant family, along with all its passions, longings, and dysfunction. It finds beauty in the mess of emigration and assimilation. At this moment in our nation’s history, I encounter a story like this and I feel grateful that the story even exists to be told. Our immigrant families’ lives were far from perfect, but they lived fully, with a lot hardship and a lot of love. With this play, we celebrate full hearts, full bellies, and the fundamental belief that they deserved the chance to make all of this possible.