Katie is a puppet in more ways than one in “The Copper Children,” a play by Karen Zacarias that is based on a horrifying true story. Katie is one of the immigrant toddlers shipped from New York City to Arizona in 1904 that led to a custody case newspapers dubbed the trial of the century. If there are echoes in this historical drama of the current family separations at the border, the specific series of events depicted in this arresting play chronicles an almost surreal combustion of desperation and bigotry.
“The Copper Children,” streaming through July 15 (extended to July 22), is the inaugural play in what has turned out to be the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s first digital season; it was planned initially as one of the two world premieres in the festival’s 85thseason, until COVID-19 shut the season down.
The play begins in the Arizona mining towns of Clifton-Morenci that are hit by two crises: A strike by the Mexican miners, who are paid less than half that of the Anglo miners, is interrupted by a violent storm that floods the town, drowning 50 residents within minutes, mostly family members of the Mexican miners. These towns are full of misery and injustice, and something even more unspeakable: Toxic pollution from the copper mines causes one of the highest rates of infertility and stillborn in the U.S.
“This land is cursed,” says Mexican miner Cornelio Chacon (Christopher Salazar.) His wife, Margarita (Caro Zeller) laments: “I’ve carried six babies. And all of them have died.”
Meanwhile, in New York City, the Sisters of Charity run an orphanage, The Foundling Hospital, that is overrun with babies. These are not all orphans; some are the off-spring of impoverished families unable to care for them. (“In 1904,” one of the cast members tells us, “25,000 children live in orphanages in New York City. Another 43,000 live on its streets.”) One mother, Allwyne (again Caro Zeller), insists the nuns take in her daughter, Mary Katherine Fitzpatrick — Katie (portrayed by a puppet.) The nuns are unable to place Irish immigrant children like Katie into local foster homes, because of anti-Irish prejudice . So the nuns come up with a plan to place them out West with “good families with Catholic values,” as certified and selected by the local priests. And so little Katie joins one of the “orphan trains” that were shockingly common at the time, and winds up in the care of Margarita and Cornelio – but not for long.
It was anti-Irish prejudice that drove Katie into their care, and anti-Mexican prejudice that snatched her out of it.
When Katie and the other children arrive at the train station, accompanied by the nuns and an agent who has arranged the trip, they are greeted by a group of curious Anglo women from the town.
“Look at how pretty they all are,” Lottie Mills (Kate Hurster) exclaims. “And all these little ones are white!” Lottie, who is another one of the town’s childless women, tells the nuns, “I want Katie.”
They explain that all the children have already been assigned to local couples.
“I am not on this list. But I can provide a good home…”
“Mrs. Mills, are you of the Catholic faith? “ asks one of the nuns (Sarita Ocon)
“Catholic? Me? No. “
“Then, I’m sorry, Mrs. Mills. We cannot help you.”
“Oh, am I not good enough!? “
Lottie becomes outraged when she learns that the families the local priest has selected for the children are Mexican. The priest, Father Mandin (Eddie Lopez), himself an immigrant from France and unaware of local prejudices, saw his selections straightforwardly as good families with Catholic values. Even the New York nuns are taken aback by his choices.
Father Mandin defends them: “They have jobs and homes. Many can read and write. And I promise you, not one of them would ever feel so desperate as to abandon a child at an orphanage.”
The Anglo townsfolk become up in arms, literally. It doesn’t help that the agent had made the poor Mexican families pay for the transportation costs for the children – which looked to the townsfolk (and newspaper headline writers) like the Catholic Church was selling little white babies to poor brown people.
Lottie enlists her husband Charles Mills the superintendent of the mine (Rex Young), and he gathers together an armed mob. In the custody case in the Supreme Court of Arizona the following year, a lawyer requests that the word “mob” be stricken from the record and replaced with “indignation committee” – a clue to what follows.
‘The Copper Children” is one of the 37 plays that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has commissioned as part of its long-running American Revolutions series; previous commissions include Robert Schenkkan’s plays about LBJ “All The Way” and “The Great Society,” Paula Vogel’s “Indecent” and Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat” – all of which went on to Broadway, the last of which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
This latest promising play in this cycle was supposed to run for ten months, opening in March. It was shut down a few days after it opened. Like many theaters, OSF is trying to navigate through this challenging era by streaming some of their productions. Unlike many other theaters, rather than offering it for free but soliciting donations, the theater is charging $15 for viewing within a 48-hour period.
Yet, the recording was done early in the process and, as they tell us in a message at the beginning of the video, intended for internal use, not for public streaming, so “as a result you will notice some sound and picture variations….” I also noticed how the staging of this “Brechtian ensemble play” (as the playwright calls it) is not optimal for a film. As directed by Shariffa Ali, the nine actors perform not just as characters but as storytellers, each taking turns presenting the narrative as the rest of the cast stands or stomps or claps, gathered together on the stage or stairs or raised platforms of Mariana Sanchez’s abstract wooden set. This is all clearly geared for a live audience, and the videographer, perhaps trying to preserve the perspective of the live theatergoer, emphasizes long and medium shots over close ups. This has its merits; it’s always a tough call. By contrast, “Hamilton” on Disney+, for example, emphasizes close ups, which assigns the ensemble (and the choreography) largely to the periphery. Here, we can take in the ensemble, while the individual characters are often kept at a distance.
Still, Zacarias’ script is so powerful – in the sympathy with which she paints the individual characters, and the obviously extensive research she conducted to put the events in context — that the visual distancing in the video matters less and less as the 90-minute production proceeds, and we feel closer and closer emotionally to the story. Even on a screen on your computer, “The Copper Children” provides stunning illumination of a moment largely lost to history, which offers some uncomfortable parallels to our own.