Yes, it’s true, almost all of us immigrated here, at one point. The descendants of many a German or Scandinavian immigrant found themselves at History Theatre for one Saturday matinee of Sweet Land the musical, taking in two hours of (albeit charming) music and performances based on the locally famed short story and film.
The musical follows Inge Altenberg, a German woman who moves to Minnesota after World War I for an arranged marriage to Olaf Torvik, a Norwegian farmer. Their community shuns Inge because they just finished fighting her country, saying she needs certain papers for the marriage to become possible. While they wait for the papers to arrive, Inge adjusts to life on the prairie and learns some English (thanks to relentless language lessons from her neighbors). Acting against social code, Inge moves onto Olaf’s farm and despite awkward first encounters, they fall in love. But their town and pastor’s traditional ways prove to be their real test.
Composer Dina Maccabee’s music was lovely, and the performances strong (Ann Michels and Robert Berdahl had great chemistry as Inge and Olaf, and there were great supporting actor/musicians to spare). Director/writer team Perrin Post and Laurie Flanigan Hegge stuck mostly to the film’s story and translated it to stage well. The lyrics were a bit too literal for my taste, and the songs over-embellished a story that, as the movie and book showed, is strong in its simplicity. Romantic, gently entertaining and overall a good time, the musical told a story of the immigrant experience meant largely for a group of people who are far removed from that experience, but do not really need to be reminded of their own.
The past few months have offered premieres of plays full of good intentions, and this one was one them. It was clear that Sweet Land’s telling came from a desire to share a story everyone in our nation of immigrants could relate to. Sure enough, Inge’s experiences shined some light on ways that European immigrants experienced racism, and the play did a good job of capturing the absurdities of the barriers propped up around her. In one scene, Inge makes an apple pie with a new friend (an energetic Tinia Moulder). When she tastes it and declares it strudel, the friend barks back: “Apple pie. A-mer-ican.” This is one of many moments when her immigrant status is shoved in her face and we witness the fear of those who want her to confirm to their normal. The tragedy is, the show never strays from a shallow, comfortable, rose-colored look at this discrimination, and misses any chances of urgency, which I’m sure it also intended to have.
It boiled down to tone. By encouraging us to laugh at how uptight these farm folks acted toward this harmless girl, the show brushed over how scary the situation was and is. Rather than energizing the audience to do something about how these problems persist today, its look at how white immigrants once suffered suggested we can sit back now; our work is done. My fear is that stories like this relieve whites of the necessary pressure to do something to change their ways or help. Maybe fewer songs and a little more truth; some shifts in the tone of dialogue or even the style of performing some songs could have given the show that urgency; a message that this discrimination continues today and we need to stop it. Instead, it was a feel-good story that said everything will turn out all right.
Because, right now, no one knows if it will. Not as ICE arrests Twin Cities residents in bigger sweeps each time, or as Donald Trump’s travel ban makes its way through an appeals court. Right now, rather than a gentle reminder of a past struggle, we need to give space to stories that tap into today’s conversations in a real way. We need stories about that wake people up, not lull them into complacency. If drawing from the past works to achieve that, then by all means, produce it.
Teaching the target audience
I understand that because of how far we still need to go, whites often need to look through the lens of their own skin color to begin to understand the troubles of others. Considering that, Sweet Land could have been a teachable story. Perhaps this play met its core audience where it was at, or got them into a theater where they might later see something more challenging. But my fear is that it was too safe, too soft, too much in the business of waving a flag of understanding but not delivering it.
I’m sure this was not Sweet Land’s intention. But I wonder whether the creators sat down and outlined what they wanted the outcome of this musical to be. If it was to make people smile, it might have worked. But because they intentionally started a conversation on the immigrant experience, I wish they had followed through on all the potential and the onus that brings. Good intentions aside, because intentions are no longer good enough.
Just doing a show about the immigrant experience is no longer enough. It also needs to bring real insight that brings people to understandings they did not have before. Or even better, insight that moves them to care, or help.
Pleasant as the musical was, it left me questioning our need for it, and now of all times. Whites do not need to be reminded of this story. We need to be wakened to those of others, and this does not cut it.