Immigrants, the Musical! (Part Two)

With this improvised musical series, one family's tale of coming to the states becomes a tale about us all

Chelsea Beth (l) and Shannon Stott in Immigrants, the Musical! (Part Two) (Photo by Steve Rogers Photography)

Suppose you knew that your great-great-grandfather had come to this country to escape punishment for a crime, possibly a murder. And that once here, he got involved in some "bad stuff." How would it affect how you live your life?

That was the question posed by Estevan J. Chuy Zarate in the performance of Immigrants, the Musical! (Part Two) on Nov. 16. As the guest monologist for the evening, Zarate was responsible for providing a personal story that the show's cast of improvisers could use to dramatize a tale of the immigrant experience. He began by letting the audience know that his family name hadn't always been Zarate, that his great-great-grandfather had been a Martinez when he was in Mexico and seems to have adopted the new name when he came to the U.S. – maybe taking it from the name of the town in Michoacán that he left. The details of his departure are sketchy, but family lore has it that he'd killed someone and fled for his life to West Texas. That information was enough to spark that performance's seven improvisers into action, concocting scenes of a hardscrabble life south of the border, with Martinez being taught to work the land, trying to find love, and running afoul of an Anglo landowner. The last was intended to establish the grounds for the deadly deed the great-great grandfather committed, but when the improv didn't fit Zarate's sense of what went down, he interrupted the performers and set 'em straight. It led to a very funny succession of scenes, with Zarate making the cast keep starting over until they found the right path.

In time, Zarate shifted the tale to his grandfather, who became a top moonshine runner in West Texas, took the family north to Colorado and Seattle to do seasonal farm labor, and was notorious for having punched a cow (a fact the cast had no trouble, um, milking). Part of his tale involved his relationship with his son, Zarate's father, who was able to go to college – a first in the family, if I remember correctly – and pursue a career in education. The contrast between the generations, and the tension that goes with it, is common to many an immigrant story: The parent works to give the child a better life than he or she had, but with that better life comes changes in culture, new ways that separate the child from the parent and the old ways. The improvisers played on this theme with remarkable sensitivity, crafting with care the awkward silences and sharp exchanges and tentative olive branches that parents and children know so well. (To see the grandfather approach the son he'd just fought with and say, "I found a book in the library that I thought you might like" was to see paternal humility at its most affecting.)

The cast maintained this level of sensitivity as Zarate then spoke about the relationship he and his brother had with their father (rough) and how it inspired him to be a better dad to his sons. And the further we traveled down this historical and generational trail, the clearer it became what made Immigrants, the Musical! different from other shows that use a guest's story about their life as a springboard for improvised scenes: These aren't just tales of one family's bravery and sacrfice and change; they're tales that belong to many families across this country and throughout our past. They're part of our national myth. What co-directors Lahari Dunn and Asaf Ronen do here is take the building blocks of a personal immigrant experience – the family stories, some only half-remembered through the years – and use drama to fill them out, to build them into myth.

Mythologizing these stories through musicals isn't the hokey touch that exclamation point in the title might suggest. Songs can add real substance and impact to the stories, and while not every performer in the Nov. 16 show was fully confident when it came to singing, the ones who were – chiefly Shannon Stott, Frank Sánchez, and Chelsea Beth – lifted up the narrative with passion and commitment, and the score that Musical Director Tosin Awofeso improvised on keyboards always generated emotional drive and power. Nowhere was that clearer than in the finale, when the company, picking up on Zarate's choked-up reference to his sons, created an anthem that insistently repeated the phrase "I'm so proud." It answered that question of Zarate's by rejecting the idea of bloodline as destiny but affirming the importance of family ties. It was a heart-swelling conclusion, and Zarate even joined in the chorus, tears of pride running down his face.

Immigrants, The Musical! (Part Two)

The Institution Theater, 3800 Woodbury
Through Dec. 21
Running time: 1 hr.

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Austin improv, Institution Theater, Asaf Ronen, Lahari Dunn, Tosin Awofeso, Shannon Stott, Frank Sánchez, Chelsea Beth

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