History In The Time Of Cholera.
By Alisha Giampola (Actor)
When I was little, one of my first experiences performing outside of a ballet or piano recital was my participation in my church youth group's presentation of an American Girls play. By wild popular vote, Home is Where the Heart Is: A Play About Kirsten (the Scandinavian immigrant American Girl) had been chosen by almost all the little girls in our group. My minority vote for Samantha, the dark haired rich Victorian character, and the doll I myself owned, had gone unnoticed. But I knew I would still have an opportunity to impress our entire church body with my acting chops. Mainly, this was because all of the girls in our group were to be given roles- characters were doubled, tripled, stage directions were turned into a "Narrator" character and children that feared public speaking to the point of death were assigned silent, overlookable parts as passengers on the boat that takes Kirsten and her family to America. Of course I wanted to be the lead of Kirsten (my excessive melanin and kinky dark hair be damned) but when I was assigned the part of Marta, Kirsten's best friend, I gracefully decided that it must be because they needed the best actress to portray the challenging death scene at the end of the play.
For those of you who were not middle class and female in the early nineties, let me first say that the American Girls were a Very Big Deal. These were not the American Girl dolls of today, with their hipster clothing and demographically inclusive physical characteristics. There are now American Girls to fit every possible ethnicity and fashion statement, if not every budget; we are talking about doll clothing that costs as much as an entire regular-human-sized outfit from Bloomingdales.
When I was growing up, the American Girls were purely Historical. There was a redhead, a blonde, a brunette, a nerd, and a black girl. If you didn't identify with any of these types, you were S.O.L. Not to mention that the doll you chose was crucial to your social status amongst your group of American Girl doll-obsessed friends. I was both brunette and a nerd, but I prefered Samantha's wardrobe and accessories to Molly's dull beret and handkerchief combo (although I don't know if I really like what this article says my Samantha-owning indicates about me as a person).
It was alarming to realize that apparently, since my childhood (and surely greatly in part to Pleasant Company's late-nineties aquisition by Mattel from The Pleasant Company) the American Girls have gone from being a charming, if expensive, way for girls to feel empowered and learn about women in history to an enormous, Girls-R-Us money making machine of ego-pleasing Awesome Modern Girl Dolls That Look Exactly Like You, Now With Designer Accessories!
The hair salon inside the American Girls store was nicer than the salon in which I entrust the care of my own non-synthetic locks and even though it wasn't my own money, I felt a little silly shelling out $25 to the stylist and turning down the spa deluxe package (a FACIAL SCRUB?! for a DOLL?!). I wondered if they carried the theatre kits anymore and if any of the savvy little Burberry-clad Manhattan girls in the store would even be interested in one. (Not to mention that an actual theatre located inside the American Girl store in NYC was the center of a labor dispute with AEA several years ago.)
I was delighted to die on the straw mattress of the ship's sick bay, portrayed in our production by a slightly flattened bean bag chair and several tan colored beach towels. At the age of ten, I myself was woefully unaware of the symptoms of cholera, but I imagined rather romantically that it was similar to tuberculosis- a sickness I was familiar with from watching lots of BBC movies my mom and I borrowed from the library. I created a soft, pathetic, slightly hacking cough that I felt seemed both tragic and brave. Good thing I never actually looked up or tried to replicate the actual symptoms of a cholera infection.
Our production had possibly the least Scandinavian cast ever. We had a Hispanic Kirsten, an Arab/Italian Marta, Brazillian Mama Larson, and Greek Lisbeth. We got points for diversity, if not realism. I felt that our varied backgrounds represented all of our cumulitive immigrant histories in a meaningful way. The experience of travelling across the ocean and landing in New York City to an entirely new way of life spoke to me, as I knew that my great-grandmother, Martha, had exactly the same experience when she came to the United States from her small town in Syria when she was only 15. I knew my great-grandmother as a child; by the time I remember her she was a big, old soft-haired Arabic lady with an accent that belied her residence in an English-speaking country since 1915. All of us grandchildren called her 'Sitsiteh', an unspellable combiniation of syllables that were some Anglicized version of the actual Arabic way to say great-grandmother, I'm sure.
Even when she was still alive, Sitsiteh was a mythical person to me. From various family stories and some personal experience, I knew she had killed snakes with her bare hands in fig trees back in Syria as a child; she had killed chickens with her bare hands in her backyard in Irwin, Pennsylvania, her adopted home; she could crochet a blanket in less time than it would take me to purchase yarn; she had travelled across the Atlantic essentially alone at the age of 15, her little brother Russell in her sole care; by the age of 16 she had married, borne a child, had her last name changed to the simple American monosyllable of "Ed", and was well on her way to being a successful entreprenuer with her husband as the owner of several grocery stores. Coincidentally, in her thick Syrian accent, my great grandmother never pronounced her name as "Martha", it was always "Marta".
I wonder as a child growing up today, if performing the stories of the current batch of American Girl dolls would prove to be an exciting introduction to theatre. Pioneering across the country after your best friend dies of cholera? Indisputably dramatic. Heading up a bake sale to support the local school's arts program? I mean, wow, let's try to save some of that excitement for act two.
Getting ready for our first, and only performance of Home Is Where The Heart Is, I braided my dark hair into a thick plait, as the Meet Kirsten book described Marta as wearing hers, and put on the long dark skirt and embroidered vest and crocheted (by Sitsiteh, no less) shawl I had chosen to wear for my costume. I stood in front of the mirror, looking at my ten-year old not-yet-plucked eyebrows and tanned skin, even swarthier with the ill-advised decision to apply my friend Joy's dark brown Wet n Wild lipstick. I sure as hell didn't look like a Scandinavian immigrant, but an immigrant I did resemble. Possibly my own immigrant great-grandmother, another "Marta" on another boat, headed towards a new life.