Songs and Photos Capture Immigrant Tales of Long Ago

Immigration in decades past in New York City is the subject of two current shows – one a musical and the other a photographic exhibit. “The News” musical takes audience members to the Lower East Side for immigrant stories, while a photo exhibit presents the work of Paul Margolis, who fleshes out beauty in deteriorating buildings of the long abandoned section of Ellis Island. The Jewish Week, in its arts section, features articles on both.

A scene from the on-location musical, "The News." (Photo by Michael Hickey via The Jewish Week)

A scene from the on-location musical, “The News.” (Photo by Michael Hickey via The Jewish Week)

Reporter Ted Merwin spotlights “The News”, a technology-driven musical that takes place in Lower East Side parks, streets and other locations that audience members go to while wearing MP3 devices that play the music that accompanies dance numbers by the show’s teenage dancers.

The couple behind the show – Michael Hickey, who composed the music, and Ryan Gilliam, who wrote the lyrics and directed – got their inspiration from immigrant stories of a century ago that appeared in The New York Times.

For “The News,” which is being produced as part of the First Annual Lower East Side History Month, the couple took 10 Times stories from 1914 that cover a diverse array of subjects, including a baby contest, a tenement fire, and the opening of a rooftop garden for the blind. Many of the stories dealt with Jews, who formed the largest immigrant group in the city.

Visit The Jewish Week to read about one of Gilliam’s favorite Times articles, which involves the East Side Pageant of Nations, a parade of immigrant students, as well as her thoughts on the relevance of the century-old stories nowadays. Also get more details on the musical – just one more show left – and the couple’s company, Downtown Art.

Meanwhile, in February 2002, Paul Margolis went to the south side of Ellis Island, where abandoned structures from years long gone lie, decaying with time. There, the documentary photographer took haunting shots of the old hospital wards, the quarantine quarters, and the morgue, reports Sandee Brawarsky for The Jewish Week. Soon after his visit, the area was sealed off from visitors. What he was able to capture is being shown in the exhibit, “Hidden Ellis Island,” at the Living Room Gallery at Saint Peter’s Church in Manhattan.

Photos of abandoned Ellis Island by Paul Margolis via The Jewish Week

Photos of abandoned Ellis Island by Paul Margolis via The Jewish Week

Capturing what is no longer visible, he shows the interiors of buildings, stairwells, broken windows, still open doorways, sinks and chairs that may have served in a doctor’s office. When he got there, the space had been untouched for about 60 years. Some photos provide a haunting reminder of the dark side of immigration history. Many of the people who walked these shadow-filled hallways didn’t survive, or were sent back across the ocean.

As Margolis says in an interview with The Jewish Week, he understands that “people bring a lot to these images”; so many Americans have their own connections to Ellis Island.

As an ESL teacher, Margolis brings his immigrant students to Ellis Island, which can put things in perspective for them.

“None of my students had an easy time of immigrating. But they realized there were worse things than flying to the U.S. in a few hours. Here, people had come in steerage, with incurable diseases — they were quarantined and died, or were sent back,” he says.

“Hidden Ellis Island” runs through June 29. For more on Margolis, including his inspirations and other work, visit The Jewish Week for the full article.

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