How a Tenement House Transformed Into a Theater

A historical place came to life through the spoken word of immigrants who have achieved their artistic dreams in America.

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The Baldizzi Family Kitchen. Photo: Keiko Niwa

Theater has always been site-specific. That’s why we say we’re “going to the theater.” It matters that we’re moving our couch-potato bodies to a specific site to see a show. The Ancient Greeks knew this when they built the Theatre of Dionysus. And Broadway knew this 2,000 years later when impresario David Belasco built his gorgeous and eponymous Belasco Theatre in 1907.

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Yet, in contemporary theater there is a trend that vigorously removes the performance from the site of the traditional venue. In these cases, the site is not merely a functional venue as in the past, but now is inextricable from the performance itself. When theater is performed in a church, a bar or a body of water, the intent is for that site to resonate in tandem with the performance, to create a sum greater than the individual parts.

The effectiveness of this model?

I submit the PEN World Voices: Tenement Museum Edition as evidence. This ambitious festival is organized by the prominent literary organization PEN America, which “stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide.” It brings to NYC more than 165 writers and artists representing more than 50 nationalities to spark conversations and debates on a theme. The theme this year, “Resist and Reimagine,” brought PEN into collaboration with the Tenement Museum to provide intimate, salon-style readings by authors of contemporary fiction, many of whom either are a part of, or have written on, the immigrant experience.

The Tenement Museum is as specific a site as any place in NYC, and this festival aligns well with the museum’s mission to:

Tell the stories of immigrants who started their lives anew on Manhattan’s Lower East Side between the 19th and 21st centuries through the recreated apartment and businesses of real families in our two historic tenement buildings. Our tenements housed over 15,000 working class immigrants from over 20 nations while they served as residences.

PEN World Voices: Tenement Museum Edition took place at 97 Orchard Street on the Lower East Side, the cradle of the American immigration experience. This is an actual tenement house, preserved and restored to its original appearance from the 1920s. The tour guide situated my group of eight in the second-floor apartment, informing us that a family of four — the Baldizzis — had immigrated from Palermo to live in these rooms long ago. She added that just above us, on the third floor, doors shut on their own. “If you don’t believe in ghosts, then don’t worry,” she said. “If you believe in ghosts, the third floor is definitely haunted.”

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The first reading was held in the bedroom of the Baldizzi parents, Adolfo and Rosaria. It was a pressurized box, with room for only six of us to sit. My fellow audience members and I found ourselves nose-to-nose with André Aciman, the celebrated author of Call Me by Your Name, the 2007 novel adapted into a 2017 Oscar nominee for Best Picture. Aciman, who immigrated from Egypt to the US with his parents as a teen, read from his celebrated novel in a gentle, accented voice.

On a small table in the corner was a loaf of bread, tarnished silverware, unlit gas lamps and a worn novel. On the wall hung three antique picture frames. This bric-a-brac was framed by “tuberculosis windows,” which divide the kitchen from the back bedroom. The name reflected a 19th century local law requiring a standard level of cross-ventilation to help fight TB. Aciman noted, tongue squarely in cheek, that this reading might have been the most intimate face-to-face encounter he’s had in some time. He asked us to imagine each of the Baldizzis in this small space, existing so close, so face-to-face, with all of their family members. I’d never found being cramped so poignant. Something swelled up inside me, replacing the creeping claustrophobia.

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Then it was on to the third floor (which may or may not be haunted) and into the tiny parlor of the Gumpertz, a German-Jewish family of eight. Our group had no more luck fitting into this room than the last. One factor in the fit: the walls of the parlor have been thickened by 22 layers of wallpaper and 40 layers of paint, literally shrinking the room over time. It was encroaching history made literal, forcing contemporary bodies into a huddled mass. On the ceiling: wallpaper stalactites, with hints of the original tin ceiling warping its way through a torn floral pattern.

In this space, we heard Ibi Zoboi speaking passionately about, and reading from, her 2017 novel American Street, which tracks the lives of Haitian immigrants through 1920s Detroit. Zoboi then gave a personal account of her family immigrating from Haiti to the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn in the 1980s, when she was four. She reminded the millennials in the room that the Bushwick of her youth did not resemble the gentrified Bushwick of today. It might have seemed impossible that those parlor walls, through their layers of paint and layers of wallpaper, could talk, but not only did they speak, they listened. I felt like a voyeur as Zoboi and those of us in room shared respective stories of the immigrant experience in America. Zoboi finished, letting it be known this was “the coziest reading I’ve ever had,” and we moved next to a reception with the authors.

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The experience I had was of a historical place coming to life through the spoken word of immigrants who have achieved their artistic dreams in America. This event was site-specific theater of a most visceral, urgent, necessary type. After all, when we aim to represent the immigrant experience, shouldn’t we show it specifically? When we talk about the immigrant experience, shouldn’t we talk about finding one’s own space?

The Tenement Museum is the story of immigrants who came through Ellis Island and hunkered down in an unforgiving, cramped metropolis. But the immigrant experience continues, and we all know it isn’t just limited to NYC. Every city, town, and village in America has its own immigrant stories and transient histories, it’s own tales of searching for space, for representation. The immigrant experience itself is site-specific and requires art to meet it at this threshold. One can only hope that other arts organizations will follow the example of PEN World America and The Tenement Museum and facilitate encounters just like this one.