Theater artist Ari Laura Kreith lived in or visited 37 countries as the child of a peripatetic mathematics professor. So it was to be expected that she felt at home when she moved in 2005 to a neighborhood in New York City that may be the most culturally diverse spot on the planet.
An estimated 167 languages are spoken in Jackson Heights, a neighborhood in the Queens borough that is populated by immigrants from all around the globe, from Asia to Latin America.
“What’s amazing is that everybody shares space, and the cultures are very distinct and proud of their own experience, and yet also very curious about and appreciative of others’ experience and heritage,” Kreith said. Her own young daughter, she said, quickly learned to greet some business owners with “hola” and others with “ni hao.”
“That to me is the magic, walking down the street and realizing you can drop in and out of all these different cultures, because everything is so open, and everyone is so open,” Kreith said.
Multicultural, multilingual theater
Four years ago, Kreith founded a theater company, Theatre 167, to create plays reflecting those multicultural, multilingual lives. Its current production, which Kreith jokingly calls the fourth play in a Jackson Heights trilogy, takes place late at night, and features more than 20 characters, from a trafficked woman from Latin America, to a Russian-born man intent on rescuing her, to an Indian taxi driver and a drag queen from Colombia. Infatuations and love affairs spring up across cultural lines, including among characters who can barely understand each other.
I Like to Be Here: Jackson Heights Revisited, Or, This is a Mango is, like the earlier plays, a collaborative production, created by seven playwrights, including J. Stephen Brantley. Brantley also plays two characters in the production, a meth addict and a closeted gay cop, and said that the play is partly about conflicting feelings of belonging and alienation, and “all the different ways that people identify culturally, and all the different ways that people feel foreign.”
“Especially this production was very much about the immigrant experience, and what it feels like to come into a place where you’re not known,” he said, “and maybe without knowing who you are yourself, and having the opportunity to discover or invent an identity in a new place.”
Lipica Shah was raised in the United States by a Bengali mother from Calcutta, and a Kumauni Indian father. She plays Gita, a native of Punjab, who works as a taxi dispatcher. Shah said she learned more about her own culture from her roles in Theater 167 plays.
“My character has a crush on a man from Korea, who works at the music and video store that I frequent in between school and work. And our taxi dispatchers are from different places, so it’s interesting that in this one little tiny call center, that all these different cultures intersect,” she said. “The joy of Gita is that she’s blended her culture and her Americanisms now, and managed to find her place between the two.”