No one has articulated the plight of the immigrant better than Moses, who dolefully called himself a “stranger in a strange land.” That description would undoubtedly resonate with the characters in Sophia Romma’s absurdist new play, “Cabaret Émigré.”
It’s a series of vignettes about Russian Jews and other immigrants coping with a dizzying sense of dislocation, even as they discover bizarre humor and extravagant erotic possibilities in the process of remaking their identities. The play, which has echoes of Tuvia Tenenbom’s iconoclastic style, is currently running in Midtown at the Lion Theatre.
Directed by Charles Weldon for the Negro Ensemble Company, “Cabaret Émigré” is based on interviews that Romma conducted with 11 Eastern European, African and Latino immigrants. The play’s setting is a mix of cabaret and cotton club, in which the disoriented characters — which include a Yiddish poet, a Nigerian butcher and an imprisoned Sephardic Jew — act out a series of improbable situations, set in a range of periods and locales, that speak to common themes of upheaval and disempowerment.
Romma, who was born in Moscow, arrived in America in 1979 at the height of the Soviet Jewry movement. She wrote the screenplay for the award-winning 2000 film, “Poor Liza,” starring Ben Gazzara and Lee Grant, and has penned numerous plays, including “Shoot Me in the Cornfields” and “Love, in the Eyes of Hope, Dies Last.” She last collaborated with the Negro Ensemble Company two years ago, with a pair of one-acts about interfaith relationships between immigrants, “With Aaron’s Arms Around Me” and “The Mire.”
In an interview, Romma told The Jewish Week that she chose other artists and performers as most of her interview subjects, out of the perception that re-establishing oneself in a new society demands a kind of theatrical refashioning of the self. “You need to put on a different face in order to put yourself out there in public and come to grips with what’s happening to you,” she said. “It’s not about resurrecting yourself, but about creating an alter ego.”
She wrote “Cabaret Émigré” in “quantum verse,” which rhymes only in alternate lines; she found this appropriate for a play in which America is shown as off-kilter and “not what it’s cracked up to be.” Little surprise, then, that wild, disorienting things keep happening in the play: Stalin and Hitler appear as satanic railroad conductors, a Gestapo agent turns up in a parlor in Hell, and Jesus takes a turn as an immigration agent.
But as one Jewish character, who calls himself a “displaced soul in limbo,” finds by confessing to a drug-addicted Catholic priest from Honduras, immigration can furnish its own kind of salvation. “The play gives a cheeky, sardonic view,” the playwright said, “of an America in which you can lose yourself, but also find yourself again.”
“Cabaret Émigré” runs through Nov. 18 at Theatre Row’s Lion Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St. Shows are Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets, $18, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.