Friday, April 4, 2008

Once upon a time in Miami

America’s “melting pot” experiment is the Babel effect in reverse. Instead of shattering one people into thousands of different tribes, America joins thousands of tribes together—melting them like tin soldiers on a hot plate, then fusing them into a single alloy of sterner stuff. Well, that’s the theory. The experiment is still in progress.

21st century Miami puts the melting pot theory to the acid test. Michael McKeever’s The Miamians (originally titled The Melt) explores the experiment. It isn’t always pretty. His play paints a portrait of a schizoid city—a city of memory that's also a city of amnesia.

On the one hand, Miami is a subtropical paradise of deeply held cultures and traditions. It’s simultaneously a subtropical Etch-a-Sketch which casually erases its rich history—paradise lost to the wrecking ball. Vast neighborhoods become blank slates for new development, high rises very much like Tower of Babel. The people who once lived in these neighborhoods don’t melt together; the ex-neighbors melt away, taking their histories with them. According to McKeever, Miami doesn’t suffer from a clash of cultures. It suffers from a clash of culture and the forces of cultural amnesia.

In The Miamians, that clash resonates in the stories of intertwining families from widely (wildly) different backgrounds—and surprisingly similar values. There’s a gay couple, a black family, a Jewish family, a Cuban family. They’re a rainbow of humanity, worthy of a Benetton ad. And they’re all such nice people. In an alternate selection of characters, McKeever could’ve given us Tony Montana from Scarface or the serial killer from Dexter. Or, say, Crockett and Tubbs from Miami Vice. He could’ve given us almost anybody. And that’s the point. Miami isn’t just a city; it’s a world. Any cross-section of Miamians is, by definition, arbitrary. Narrowing it down to six characters is like walking into a vast library and pulling out six books. In a city like Miami, chances are, the books will be wildly different and vastly interesting. McKeever’s big point?

Burning down the library is a bad idea.

McKeever opens with a story from the lost-and-found department. A character named Isaac remembers his maternal grandfather—Israel Zangwill, a playwright. Except for a few English majors, nobody else remembers his name or his play: The Melting Pot. But all America remembers the central image of Zangwill’s play: a multitude of tribes, melting and fusing together. Isaac wonders how hot the pot has to get for all those tribes to melt together. But that’s misdirection on the part of the playwright. The melting pot? Please.

McKeever thinks it’s a lousy idea. He doesn’t want to melt the tribes together. He’s in love with the tribes’ differences—in their disparate recollections. Sacred stories. Cultural memory. Whatever you call it, he wants us to love it too. He reminds us how fragile such memories can be. He shakes us up with a powerful image of memory deletion—and file recovery.

Remember Isaac? The character who told the story about the playwright at the beginning of the play?

By play’s end, Isaac doesn’t remember Isaac. His mind is a blank slate, thanks to Alzheimer’s. His stories are gone, at least from his own memory. But his family promises to remember Isaac’s stories for him. And pass them down. Isaac doesn’t understand their promise. But they do; and they mean it. Isaac’s story is worth saving. They all are.

McKeever thinks so. Clearly.

That’s the point of his play. It’s not a subtle point. He’d rather be clear.

To paraphrase an old TV show: There are 5.5 million stories in the city of Miami. “The Miamians” tells you six of them. There’s more where that came from. But if you tear down the old neighborhoods and kick the people out, the stories will be gone.

Don’t burn down the library. Even if a developer hands you a big check to put up some shiny new buildings. Don’t. Miami isn’t the buildings.

It’s the people, stupid.

‘The Miamians’
Short version: Miami: you can’t go home again.

Through May 24
Florida Studio Theatre
1241 North Palm Ave., Sarasota