A Sprawling Multi-Media Project Spills the American Melting Pot On-Stage
Oh, the stories Ray LaForest could tell you. This Haitian political activist immigrated to the United States in 1968, settling in New York’s Queens borough. He kept close ties with family and friends back home, and he heard about how paramilitary groups such as the FRAPH—the Revolutionary Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti—took care of people it didn’t like. It took a shine to skinning people’s faces from ear to ear and burying them in shallow graves so dogs could come by and dine.
When LaForest and other Haitian activists were invited onto the Phil Donahue show, he finally saw the results with his own eyes. One of the guests was a young woman who had been hacked with a machete; even after multiple surgeries she was but a shell of her former self. FRAPH came looking for her Jean-Bertrand Aristide-sympathetic husband and decided she would do just fine. The horrific, twilight zone aspect of this anecdote: Emmanuel “Toto” Constant, the one-time leader of this death squad, was also living in Queens, dancing in nightclubs, and selling real estate.
And that’s just a portion of one man’s story revealed in Warren Lehrer and Judith Sloan’s mammoth—as in, book, audio CD, traveling exhibition, online Mobile Story Booth, and theatrical performance—multimedia project Crossing the BLVD. It’s an eye-opening peek inside America’s “New Immigrant” population, an ever larger and more diverse demographic since passage of the Immigration and National Services Act of 1965.
“This story,” Lehrer starts to say but immediately stops, looking for the words to discuss something that continues to affect him no matter how many times he thinks about it. You can almost hear him getting his bearings over the phone from the Queens apartment he shares with his wife and frequent creative partner, Sloan, who is also on the line on this snowy Monday morning. “We came to [LaForest] because he was very involved in fighting against the leader of the paramilitary group back in Haiti, who all of a sudden was selling real estate in a Haitian neighborhood in Queens.”
“And he recognized this man who was accused of slicing people’s faces off and murdering people,” Sloan jumps in—discussing this project, it often sounds as if the two share a brain. “But his story was so incredibly long. And then within each one of those little tiny stories was this great stuff, and you can’t include all that.”
The sheer breadth of material is the most impressive aspect of BLVD. From 1999 to 2002, Lehrer and Sloan turned their investigative minds and multifaceted methods to their own Queens neighborhood. The team discovered that, according to U.S. Census data, Queens is the most racially/ethnically diverse location in the United States. It was a revelation that opened Lehrer, a writer and photographer, and Sloan, an oral historian, writer, and actress, up to the idea that they could do one of their visually creative documentary projects in their own backyard.
“Like most people who live in Queens, they end up there because it’s affordable or near the airports,” Lehrer says. “And that’s one of the reasons it’s become a Mecca for newcomers and immigrants. . . . A lot of people think of Queens as a bedroom community to Manhattan, but it actually had a lot of factories and the cheap kind of housing thrown up for factory workers. So, like a lot of other people here, we couldn’t really relate to where we were living, and then we realized that we lived at these incredible crossroads of the world. We are here at this sort of phenomenal juncture of American history.”
The INS Act of 1965 eliminated the country of origin quotas that vastly opened up America’s borders, and BLVD captures an immigrant population drastically different from the stereotype of white Europeans coming by boat. BLVD is filled with Congolese and Nepalese, Afghan and Bhutanese, Romanian and Tajik, asking them fairly simple questions about what life was like back home, why they left, and what life has been like for them here.
It is an almost bottomless well of vibrant personalities. The book and exhibit offer the participants’ oral histories presented with some contextualizing images—passports, trinkets from back home, childhood photos, native dress. In a bit of savvy visual shorthand, both the book and the exhibit introduce people with graphics that superimpose a map of their country of origin onto neighborhood maps of the New York boroughs. The stage performance dramatizes the notion of local travel suggested by such images, as Sloan channels characters inspired the people the two interviewed.
Like much community-based art, BLVD can feel like only partially formed art and really soft ethnography, but what Lehrer and Sloan are aiming for doesn’t want to be either. It’s a rough-hewn hybrid that borrows bits of the visual and the sociological in the service of telling underrepresented narratives. And what they achieve is, at times, startlingly poignant.
“This Egyptian man, Ali, who owns the smaller kebab café, but he is extremely philosophical about religion and about life,” Sloan says. “At one point he says—and he’s really just talking about his own country in the ’60s—but he’s saying he was tired of the dictatorship, and he says, ‘To keep control of a country you have to keep the people ignorant.’ It’s why he says that college students are the hotbed of rebellious thinking. And, you know, what does that have to do with today? Well, a lot of people think that if you keep cutting education and cutting access to information then you can keep avoiding it.”
And perhaps most slyly impressive is the idea that the amazing stories that the pair encountered for the project were achieved simply by doing something that, for some reason, sounds completely bizarre to people living in cities. They got to know their neighbors. “That is one of the things we’d love most for people to get out of our whole project,” Lehrer says. “To turn off their TVs . . . ”
“ . . . And go outside,” Sloan adds.
“To the laundromat or to their neighbors’ and just talk to people,” Lehrer finishes. “And depending on where they live, what they might find could really contradict the two-dimensional portrayal of the ‘other’ or immigrants that they have.”
“It just sort of makes your life richer,” Sloan says. “I talk to this one particular guy in a Lebanese market in our neighborhood now quite regularly when I go in. It’s just much more human than it used to be. Cities are places where you do have to rush to go to work, you have to rush to go home, and more and more for a lot of people with this horrible real estate [market], they are just working to pay the rent. And we’re all in that boat, so I think you lose sight of who the people are that you’re living next to.”
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