To the seven young performers who tell the stories of their lives in “Generation NYZ,” New York means subways and pizza and opportunity, but also cops and catcalling and homelessness.
They are all New Yorkers, but — as they recount for us over the course of 70 increasingly engaging minutes — either they or their parents or grandparents came from somewhere else. They tell, in other words, the story of New York, and of America.
“I don’t always feel like an American, but I do feel like a New Yorker,” says Syl Egerton, born in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1999 to a Yugoslavian refugee, raised in England and France, who moved to New York for high school.
The reaffirmation of the collective story of New York and America is at the heart of this well-crafted, carefully cast documentary theater by Ping Chong + Company, the latest in the company’s decades-long series “Undesirable Elements.” “Generation NYZ” has returned for a brief run only through February 3, this time at LaMaMa, a year after it debuted.
Sitting in chairs in a semi-circle, reading from the scripts on the music stands in front of them, the seven start with history.
Porscha Polkahantis Rudi Rippy, born in the Bronx in 1997, begins with 1945 (the cast members each repeat the year) and the 125,000 Black military service members who didn’t want to return to the Jim Crow South. One of them was her grandfather.
From there, they go to 1949. Edwin Aguila, born in Manhattan in 1995, tells the story of his grandmother migrating from Puerto Rico in 1949 at the age of 14.
Then it’s up to 1965, and they take turns telling us about the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which alters policy to open doors for more immigrants from Asia, Africa, South America and the Caribbean, which “will change the face of New York City and America forever,” says Mohammad Murtaza, born in Oakland California in 1999. They then jump to 1997, and Mohammad tells the story of “a woman named Fazia” from Karachi, Pakistan, who wins the visa lottery and emigrates with her husband. They “become my parents.”
After that, they go year by year. As the years advance, national history mixes with family history and becomes individual biography. All the performers contribute to each other’s stories, sometimesvoicing the role of parent or a classmate or a guidance counselor, more often just dividing up the exposition.
There are clues that they all belong to the same generation.The school librarian gives Harry Potter to Monica. “My love of reading is born.” Muhammad’s uncle lets him listen to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. “It’s the beginning of my love for the arts. I start writing my own songs and poetry. I am seven years old.” Michael Jackson hooks Porscha too, when she hears the band in her middle school in the South Bronx play some of his music. “It’s the beginning of a new love for music.”
But as they tell us about growing up, their lives deepen and differentiate. The normal struggles – fighting with parents, feeling friendless, overcoming anxieties and insecurities, asserting their independence and identity – are filtered through their specific circumstances. Their challenges can include overcoming poverty and bigotry and violence.
Porscha tells us of a mother who spends time in jail for drugs. Muhammad fears the strictures of growing up in a Muslim household, which forbids him to date, opens him up to anti-Islam harassment, and makes him fear revealing that he suffers from depression. D’Andra shares her coming out story, Syl tells us of the process of identifying as male. Rafael says how difficult it was to tell anybody that he and his family lived for four years in a homeless shelter.
Monica tells us she is the daughter of undocumented parents. She was the surviving twin born in 1998 in Chiautla de Tapia, Puebla, Mexico, and brought to New York as a toddler. She misses out on an opportunity to learn computer science open only to U.S. citizens. And when the new president turns bigotry into policy, she can’t join the protests because she can’t afford to have an arrest on her record. “To remain eligible for DACA you can’t have any criminal record, not even an arrest at a peaceful protest marching for your own rights,” she tells us. “So I have to look for another way. I hope telling my story will help.”
It does, Mónica Victoria Tatacoya Castañeda. It does.
Conceived by Ping Chong
Directed by Sara Zatz and Kirya Traber
Written by Sara Zatz and Kirya Traber,
in collaboration with the performers
Edwin Aguila, Mónica Victoria Tatacoya Castañeda,
Syl Egerton, Mohammad Murtaza,
De-Andra Pryce, Porscha Polkahantis Rippy,
Understudy: Zakaria Khafagy
PRODUCTION TEAM FOR GENERATION NYZ
Lighting Designer: Marika Kent
Projection Designer: Katherine Freer
Production Associate: Courtney Golden
Projections Design Assistant/Projection Supervisor: Hao Bai
Projection Operator: Katherine Teed-Arthur
Sound Designer: Ernesto Valenzuela
Graphic Design: Manuel Miranda Practice
Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission
Generation NYZ is on stage through February 3, 2019