Dorian Palumbo reviews Stephanie Satie in “Coming to America”

Back in the 50’s and 60’s we still had what they used to call “monologist” – one of the most famous was Danny Thomas, a Lebanese immigrant whose name at birth was Amos Muzyad Yakhoob Kairouz.  Though Thomas performed his monologues in nightclubs, those venues were soon taken over by comics who told jokes and did “bits”, and the art of monology was left to live and breathe only in the theatre, and even then with the assumption that there would be a full-blown play around it.  Exceptions abound; Studs Terkel’s “Working” in 1974, and more recently the brilliant works of Anna Deveare Smith, who transforms herself into each of the men and women who feature in the monologues she writes.

Still, though pure monology exists, it’s rarely celebrated the way the United Solo play festival celebrates it, and rarely done as well as Stephanie Satie, following the path of Deveare Smith and Thomas, does it with her show “Coming to America: Transformations.”

Like Deveare Smith, Satie collects, curates, enhances and embroiders the stories told to her by immigrant women from places like Cambodia, Afghanistan and Russia, then renders the characters onstage herself.  As a teacher of English as a Second Language, Satie came to know these women and, by extension, their immigration stories, as she helped them improve their language skills.  Like Thomas, nee Kairouz, Satie is an American born of immigrant parents with an ache to tell the stories of her family and other families having a similar experience, and “Coming to America” is only her latest work to be thus inspired.

“Coming to America” comes in at around an hour, and in that time Satie inhabits ten different characters whose immigrant experience is fascinating, fraught, and shows us not only about the indomitable female spirit, but also indirectly reminds us that the America to which these women came years ago is changing into an America into which some of them might never have arrived at all.  Indeed, the last story tells of a Syrian immigrant who was one of the first to immigrate to Norway, explaining that Syrians don’t even consider America a possibility any longer.

Satie performs each of these roles, with a minimum of costuming, and transitions from each to each with ease, with the help of some careful and respectful direction from Anita Khanzadian.  I do wonder if it might have been possible to explore fewer character studies than the ten Satie has chosen, in favor of exploring some of the others in more depth, intensity, and poignancy.  That said, the stories of all of the women Satie has chosen are interesting, authentic, and extremely informative, and Satie renders them with affection, verve and much, much style.

Sadly, the performance that I saw on Sunday, October 22nd, was the only one listed as part of the festival.  Indeed, most of the performers in UnitedSolo seem to have been given a single slot.  However, Stephanie Satie has an online presence at www.refugeestheplay.com, and is represented by Jeannine Frank, Frank Entertainment, if you would like information about further performances.

 

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