What the Tony Awards Can Teach Us About Immigration

Author: on 06/04/2014


This year’s Tony Awards will be presented on Sunday, June 8 in New York City.  I’ve always been a fan of the ceremony and, having seen a fair number of the nominees, I was struck by the strong intersection between Broadway theatre and immigration this year.

Take for example, A Raisin in the Sun, nominated for Best Revival of a Play, Best Actress and Best Director.  The play opens with Langston Hughes poem, Dream Deferred: 

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore–

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over–

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

The title of the poem including the words “dream deferred” immediately struck me as relevant to the current immigration debate with the DREAM Act and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in the news.

Similarly, the struggle and eventual success to bring our great nation from segregation to equal rights, both incredibly difficult and long overdue, closely parallels the struggles of many immigrants today.  Political debate and the conversation around immigration reform are reflected in another one of one of this year’s Tony nominees, All the Way.  This Best Play nominee follows President Johnson’s herculean efforts to convince Congress to enact the Civil Rights Acts of 1964. The political landscape may have changed, but perhaps President Obama could take a lesson in manipulation, or at least negotiation, from Tony nominee, Bryan Cranston, the actor portraying LBJ in motivating Congress to act.

In addition to the political parallels, this year’s ceremony, hosted by Hugh Jackman, originally from Australia, includes the nominees who  mirror academia and the business world; the list of the best of the best on Broadway includes not only Americans but natives of Switzerland, Cuba, Ireland, former Yugoslavia, Canada and the U.K.  In the technical categories, a non-U.S. citizen is included in the short list of every category barring one.

Broadway theatre is widely acknowledged as the best in the world.  It is a mixture of cultures, perspectives and stories which reflect our country, the American people and their dreams.  Broadway itself is the child of immigrants.  The names most closely associated with the Broadway tradition are largely those belonging to some of New York’s earliest immigrants in the late nineteenth century.  If you’ve ever watched a Broadway musical, and marveled at the production, then you owe some thanks to Florenz “Flo” Ziegfeld Jr., the child of a German father and French mother, he grew up in Chicago and is considered an “American icon” and father of the modern musical show.

Fred Astaire’s father was from Austria—you may not recognize his given name of Fred Austerlitz. Julia Elizabeth Wells – also known as Broadway legend, Julie Andrews – hails from the U.K.  Audrey Hepburn, Ann-Margret, Alan Cumming, Rita Moreno, Sophie Okonedo and so many other immigrants have brought their talents to The Great White Way.  Countless producers, managers, choreographers, technicians, and playwrights also helped establish and continue the proud Broadway tradition of world-class entertainment.

Last year, part of Broadway itself was named “Juan Rodriguez Way” in honor of a freed slave from the former island of Hispaniola, now the Dominican Republic, who became the first non-native immigrant to ever settle in present day Manhattan in 1613. Broadway continues to inspire immigrants who make this country their own.

So on Sunday evening, when the Tony Awards are presented, I will not only be enjoying the spectacle of theatre, but also a proud tradition and industry which has welcomed and celebrated immigrants since its earliest days.

Written by Anastasia Tonello, AILA Secretary

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