Coming to America from Europe, the first thing many hopeful immigrants were sure to see would be the Statue of Liberty, an icon of freedom and opportunity.
The most famous line of Emma Lazarus’ poem, The New Colossus, is inscribed inside the monument: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. . . .” The statue represents the promise of a better life in America to anyone who had left persecution, poverty or oppression.
“What I really hope to accomplish is to inform and entertain,” said Tara McClellan McAndrew of Springfield, author of the play, Yearning to Breathe Free, which premiers at Theatre in the Park in New Salem on June 24. “I want people to know what these immigrants went through. I want them to see how desperate they were to leave their homeland. I think we take that for granted.”
McAndrew spent more than five years writing Yearning to Breathe Free. She first became interested in the idea several years ago when writing a newspaper article about immigrants to Springfield who came through Ellis Island. She learned that she had been unaware of what many of these people went through.
“I didn’t realize how stressful it was,” McAndrew said. “It [Ellis Island] was called the island of hope and the island of tears.”
McAndrew secured a grant and traveled to New York to do research for the play on Ellis Island. She returned and continued to do more research in Springfield on the process of coming to America, as well as the individual stories of the immigrants.
Yearning to Breathe Free illuminates some of those hardships, by focusing on several families and passengers making the journey across the Atlantic Ocean. The play attempts to show that the trip as well as the actual immigration process was considerably more difficult than many believed it was.
Although she has not had much to do with the day-to-day happenings of the production, McAndrew has appeared at a few of the rehearsals to offer her perspective on characters and the endeavor as a whole.
“Everybody told me, ‘Never let the playwright near the stage,’ and I went against that,” said Charley Cross, director of Yearning to Breathe Free. “Tara has just been wonderful. We share a creative process.”
Since Yearning to Breathe Free has never before been brought to the stage, this production could define later renditions of the play.
“One thing I haven’t ever done is work on a play this closely that has never been put on stage,” Cross said. “But if I have a certain character developing in a certain way, I may see it in future productions.”
Although immigration has become a source of controversy recently, with Arizona’s recent crackdown on illegal immigration, McAndrew insists that Yearning to Breathe Free is not about current events.
“I think it will have modern-day implications, but I really intended it to be about the past,” McAndrew said.
To further reinforce the idea of viewers being transported back to the time of mass immigration, small tickets detailing a real person who went through Ellis Island will be handed out to every person who sees the play. At intermission, posters will be hung telling viewers what happened to their person.
While the play is certainly intended to be entertaining, Cross thinks the promise of a shared history and a new perspective on a pivotal American moment will make the play a unique production.
“The one thing I would say is this is not mainstream Theatre in the Park,” Cross said. “This is more of history and entertainment than a musical or something like that. It’s something new and exciting.”
Contact Jackson Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yearning to Breathe Free will run from June 24 to June 27 at Theatre in the Park in New Salem. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and $7 for children under 12. Tickets and reservations can be made by calling 217-632-5440 or 1-800-710-9290. More information on this and other plays can be found at Theatre in the Park’s website at www.theatreinthepark.net.