Musical comedy looks for silver lining in dark times

Musical comedy looks for silver lining in dark times
Courtesy of Judith Sloan
By Tammy Scileppi

Ultimately, we are all far more similar than we are different, and that’s especially true here in Queens.

On a balmy September evening, a crowd of mostly Latino people were milling around a popular empanada kiosk in Elmhurst. The aroma of home cooking was in the air and everybody seemed relaxed and happy. Parents were wheeling strollers and kids were smiling as they enjoyed the food and fall breeze. There was, it seemed, a feeling of togetherness and hope for a brighter future.

Around this close-knit group, people of Asian and Indian descent, as well as many others, were strolling by — some with shopping bags from the local mall — while sidewalk vendors displayed their treasures along Queens Boulevard.

No one seemed nervous or afraid here.

A controversial and compelling musical conjured up by a local creative and social justice advocate has recently sprung up from the chaos, hysteria and hypocrisy that seems to define our present-day culture.

Revealing the world in a local hair salon, writer/performer Judith Sloan’s new artistic expression, “It Can Happen Here,” zooms in on the lives of women who look for humor and pathos in these extreme times.

While this Queens-centric play — backed by the Queens Council on the Arts’ inaugural Artist Commissioning Program — explores the socio-economic circumstances of multi-ethnic communities with generational differences, only one viewpoint or aspect of the immigrant reality is presented, so one may ask: Does it tell the entire story?

You can catch the performance at the Jamaica Performing Arts Center — located at 153-10 Jamaica Ave. — Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Sloan has a part in the play, along with local singers/actresses/musicians Meah Pace, Priya Darshini, Lisette Santiago, and Emily Wexler. The performance is directed by Alexandra Aron and runs one hour. It’s free to the public with a reservation.

A longtime chronicler of the borough (“Crossing the BLVD” and “1001 Voices: Symphony for a New America”), Sloan was selected for her project’s capacity to tell untold stories in American art; she was one of four artists chosen from nearly 100 applications for the inaugural award in theatre and playwriting.

Painted with broad brush strokes, its a slice of life portrait of one diverse community struggling to make sense of the divisiveness around them, is revealed, but the play does represent how many people feel about a variety of hot-button issues, namely immigration.

For nine months, Sloan talked with southeast Queens residents about their hopes, fears, and aspirations and based her work on their input. In “It Can Happen Here,” two hairdressers — one black, one white — live in an ever-changing neighborhood and embark on a new dream. They follow their passion for singing and nurturing a community despite the topsy turvy political climate. Through their journey they reveal stories of their customers, family members and neighbors, including a DACA recipient, an immigration lawyer, and an older man who lost everything in Hurricane Sandy.

“What struck me over and over were stories of love and support that often fly under the radar in times of extreme duress. I decided to zoom in on conversations between women,” Sloan said.

But there’s more.

Within the subplot, Sloan has skillfully injected subtle yet scary references to the Holocaust, a devastating time in history that no one should forget. The mere mention of the word sends shivers up your spine, doesn’t it?

That seems to be the point.

Like all playwrights, Sloan would like her play to leave a strong impression on the audience and for people to come away having learned something. Here, she’s hoping that some will be asking what seems to be a rather disturbing question: Can it happen here? That’s because her new work was inspired by the Sinclair Lewis novel, “It Can’t Happen Here,” which chronicled the fictitious election of a power-hungry politician.

By pondering such a question, folks would have to wrap their heads around an unrealistic and terrifying future scenario, which suggests that the horrors of the Holocaust could actually happen in the good old US of A.

Growing up, Sloan, who comes from a lineage of Jewish refugees, often heard the phrase: “It can’t happen here,” referring to Hitler and the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust.

A Bayside resident who asked to remain anonymous is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. She said that while she understands what those refugees were trying to say, she is offended by what the play seems to suggest.

“I feel it’s wrong to make any kind of comparison from that horrific time to what some people may think or believe is happening today,” she explained.

Sometimes, there are several sides to every story.

“Here we are in Queens — the most ethnically diverse urban area in the U.S. — and stories of how we not only co-exist but collaborate across generations, religions and race often get eclipsed by the bombardment of disastrous headline news,” Sloan said. “The process of working on this play has kept me in touch with the love of learning, of listening and challenging each other in the face of adversity.”

The play’s fictional characters were inspired by tales gathered through storytelling workshops, interviews with community members and old-fashioned conversations over dinner, lunch and breakfast.

Priya Darshini, a singer and actress in the play, weighed in.

“As a brown female artist, who recently immigrated to America, I connect deeply with Judith’s play and what it stands for. America’s ideal has always been a place that allows for people from all the over world to coexist; a place where opportunities allow for humans to explore new territories, build unexpected relationships, and grow in their fields,” she said. “I am proud to be in a city that allows for this level of art, community, and narrative to exist. This is a play that truly embodies New York.”

For more information, or to RSVP, visit: www.queenscouncilarts.org/calendar/judith-sloan.