Dramatic Texts >> Raffi Arzoomanian >> Ellis Island 101

ELLIS ISLAND 101 by Raffi Arzoomanian
 
A Play in One Act
 
Characters
PETER, a middle-aged professor
ANNA, an old woman
OFFICER
 
 
PETER
This waiting … I wish they'd hurry up.
 
ANNA
Oh they won't be long.
 
PETER
How would you know?
 
ANNA
I've been here before.
 
PETER
You've been – you've been at Ellis Island before!
 
ANNA
Yes. I was sent back, young man, sent back.
 
PETER
Were you ill?
 
ANNA
No.
 
PETER
Oh… I see.
 
ANNA
Do you?
 
PETER
To be honest, I don't, I can't think. All this intimidation, you go to this desk, you go to that desk. "No, I'm not a communist, no I've never been tubercular, no I've no wife on the continent." I'm an emotional man, I'm prone to faint. I did on ship once, during the lifeboat drill.
 
ANNA
A young man like you!
 
PETER
With all I’ve been through, yes.
 
ANNA
Well you'd better not faint here, young man.
 
PETER
I'm so anxious to get on shore, you can't imagine how anxious I am to get there. It's not that I expect so much, I'm just tired of biding time. My preparation on the continent took ages, the voyage took ages, it seems I've been here for ages.
 
ANNA
Well it won't be long. This is the last test you know.
 
PETER
Test?
 
ANNA
You see, I've been in this room before, in this very room. I know what they do here.
 
PETER
Do here?
 
ANNA
I'm as petrified as you.
 
PETER
Would you please be more specific? When were you here, what did they do?
 
ANNA
They kept me from my sons and their ten children, isn't that enough? And to think, to think there was just a mile of water between us after all these years! For thirty years I've been making my way to America like a drunked-up dog. But they sent me back, an "American" like me! My boys, they never did see me ... such loyal boys. They later wrote me that when I was here they took a ferry that goes back and forth near here … hoping that I might come into view.
 
PETER
(Proudly.) That ferry you mention would be called the Staten Island Ferry! How I thrive on such details! What's more, it truly exists!
 
ANNA
My boys took this ferry for two days and called my name through megaphones … but I never heard them. They called themselves hoarse but the walls are thick here.
 
PETER
But what happens in this room? What will they do to us?
 
ANNA
Ah, they will break your heart in this room.
 
PETER
(Starts wiping his forehead nervously.) Please, specifically what –
 
ANNA
If you fail the test they'll draw a large "x" on you in this room. When they draw that "x" on you they will break your heart and send you back from where you came.
 
PETER
But they won't send me back! I've a position waiting in Boston!
 
ANNA
It makes no difference if you fail! They don't care!
 
PETER
I've an education, I'm to teach Medieval History!
 
ANNA
A teacher!
 
PETER
They need such men in the country.
 
ANNA
An educated man, well!
 
PETER
I'll be a perfect, a perfect American. I'll honor their women and abide their laws.
 
ANNA
I should have known by your vest!
 
PETER
Why do they constantly intimidate you like this! They … they scare you on ship, they scare you when they hoard you into this monstrous tomb of a building, and they scare you by bedding you with a bunch of snoring strangers! Madness!
 
ANNA
Please don't agitate yourself, there's no cause for you –
 
PETER
Does scaring the homeless make them better Americans!
 
ANNA
But you've no need to worry yourself, young man. Oh. I'm so pleased for you. I didn't know you were a teacher! And once you get over your loneliness you'll be a handsome teacher. Isn't that it ... loneliness... homelessness?
 
PETER
I suppose so... yes.
 
ANNA
You're not alone. Some get so frightened that they pee in their pants. Whatever you do … don't pee in your pants... they'll give you an "x" for that. You promise now.
 
PETER
I shan't wet my pants. I'm not a child.
 
ANNA
And this business of fainting. They'll give you an "x" for that, too, and for coughing, and for having a rash, and for having a limp or back­ache – they've no mind to investigate symptoms, back you go... and they'll give you an "x" if you can't read. That's why I was sent back.
 
PETER
(Suddenly relieved.) Ah, now I understand. My, my, you had me going there. This room... so they're to test our literacy here – well I won't faint over that, I assure you! (She shares his pleasure.) Well... well...I've the feeling that it's all downhill from here. You really had me going there, mama – you don't mind my calling you that?
 
ANNA
Please do, professor. (She looks on him with great admiration.) A teacher... a teacher.
 
PETER
Mama… we are both from the same country, a human slaughter­house.
 
ANNA           
(Thoughtfully, as to a teacher.) Yes...yes
 
PETER
Just the thrill of a position in America. Just the notion of a natural death is so precious, so rare for our kind!
 
ANNA
You're a great teacher, a genius!
 
PETER
A natural death. I want nothing more, that's it! No more butchery, no more transiency, no more cruelty.
 
ANNA
Cruelty you say! Well, that Irishman's cruel, I can tell you!
 
PETER
Uhh … What Irishman would that be?
 
ANNA
The one that's coming in here with the papers for us to read. That's the one that tricked me.
 
PETER
But he can't trick you if you're able to read, mama!
 
ANNA
But I can't read.
 
PETER
You mean you couldn't read.
 
ANNA
No, I can't read. (She shrugs.) But I do like to think of myself and language as I would a competent pianist who can't read music.
 
PETER
But they'll send you back again, mama!
 
ANNA
No, not this time. He can't read our language, either, so all I need to do is a recitation. I've been rehearsing our Lord's Prayer.
 
PETER
But suppose he knows there's no Lord's Prayer on the paper!
 
ANNA
Sssh, that's not the way he catches you. The Irish fox he turns the paper sideways and then asks you to read.
 
PETER
The charlatan … sideways, can you imagine.
 
ANNA
Last time, when I started "reading" he gave me the "x" right here on my back. I got the same treatment as one who wets his pants.
 
PETER
I don't think I could take it.
 
ANNA
But this time – what is your name?
 
PETER
Peter.
 
ANNA
But this time, Peter, I'll not be fooled.
 
PETER
But how –
 
ANNA
You see, I've learned that the papers in this country are longer from top to bottom than from side to side. The Irishman doesn't know I was here three years ago. If he holds it sideways this time I won't be angry. I'll be kind, I'll say, "Are you trying to fool me, mister? Don't you know you're holding it sideways? Now please turn it this way so I may read it for you." Then he'll turn it so that the length would be this way (Uses her hands.) and not this way. (Uses her hands again.) I once dreamed that America would spare us such accidents. A slight shift of the paper and I would have been spared three years' longing.
 
PETER
But I see you're a hardy woman, you've kept yourself up!
 
ANNA
Anticipation, Peter, that's what keeps us all up.  
 
(An immigration OFFICER enters.)
 
That's him, that's the same one. You Irishman, I've got you this time. You won't keep me from America this time!
 
PETER
For heaven's sakes keep quiet or he'll be prejudiced against you!
 
ANNA
He doesn't understand what I'm saying!
 
PETER
But he hears you yelling, mama, now be quiet and leave this to me.
 
(The OFFICER comes over and checks their tags against a sheet on his clipboard.)
 
(With a slight accent.) I can read in American if you like, sir, or in my own language. But my ladyfriend here will do hers in Armenian.
 
OFFICER
All right. What's she so excited about?
 
PETER
She's anxious to see her sons, it's been a long time.
 
OFFICER
Just a moment. (The OFFICER fetches some materials.)
 
ANNA
What did you say to him?
 
PETER
Sssh. I'm setting it up. I told him about your sons. (He winks at her.)
 
ANNA
About them being on the ferry. He'll think they're crazy!
 
PETER
Please, please, leave it to me.

The officer returns.
 
OFFICER
Read at least five sentences, please.
 
PETER
When you turn the paper rightside up I will! (They have a nervous laugh together.) "The growth of agriculture since 1935 has been more phenomenal than the corresponding growth in industry, said Henry K –"

OFFICER
That's good enough.
 
(ANNA stands and applauds.)
 
ANNA
Good for you, young man. God bless you for being so brilliant a young man.
 
PETER
(Sheepishly.) Thank you, mama.
 
ANNA
I want you to feel that I'm taking the place of your mother. She would clap too.
 
(The OFFICER cases ANNA and their eyes find one another. She looks back at him with apprehension and excitement.)
 
PETER
God be with you, mama. (He is quite nervous.)
 
OFFICER
(To Peter.) Don't you say anything - It's a violation, you know.
 
PETER
I don't need to. She reads marvelously, you watch. She's an avid reader you watch. Brilliant.
 
(The OFFICER shows her the paper sideways and she smiles with relief. She takes her time, looking first at PETER then at the OFFICER.)
 
ANNA
Are you trying to fool me, mister? Don't you know you're holding it sideways? Now please turn it this way so I may read it for you. (She has the OFFICER turn the paper.) Good. Now then, Our Father who art in heaven –
 
PETER
No, no, oh no, I, I –
 
ANNA
Hallowed be thy . . . hallowed be thy –

(The OFFICER pulls the paper away gently.)
 
PETER
Mama, mama, no, you turned the paper upside down!
 
(ANNA gives out a genuine but comic scream and PETER faints to the floor. As ANNA sits glassy eyed the OFFICER marks an "x" on her abdomen, shakes his head and marks an "x" on the chest of the prone (but coming to) PETER. The OFFICER then helps PETER to his feet and sits him down. He makes an expression of condolence before leaving.)
 
PETER
Mama…mama …(He recognizes what happened.)
 
ANNA
You fainted ... I told you that was a ... violation, Peter.
 
PETER
Yes. (Pause.) Hey, come back?
 
(PETER jumps up and speaks towards the empty parts of the stage.)
 
I'm.a sensitive man, that's why I faint! Only a sensitive man could average a ninety-four while starving his way to a doctorate! I have it right here. A doctorate issued by the University of Lebanon to Peter Tehlirian - History - while I was there I mastered English, I mean American English-and I will not stand for this disgrace! Come back and at least have a talk, I'm sure we can … (He exhales the rest of his air and stands nodding.)
 
ANNA
Where will you go ... to?
 
PETER
I ... I don't know. Yes, I do - Paris. I know I can work there…
until …
 
ANNA
I'm responsible, Peter. I should be dead.
 
PETER
Ssshhh. Where will you go?
 
ANNA
Oh… (She feigns light-heartedness.) Oh, I don't know ... I can always go ... well there are several countries where I know … I'll be all right. You see, I'm thinking of next time. How will I ever know when it's right side up or upside down?
 
PETER
Then it's Paris for you. I'll teach you how to read and you'll coach me off fainting. We'll come back.
 
ANNA
Yes.
 
PETER
How old are you, mama?
 
ANNA
Over seventy.
 
PETER
Ah.
 
ANNA
(Cheerfully.) In case you're wondering – I'll live to see the Irishman again. I'll live to die in America.
 
PETER puts his arm around her.
 
ANNA
I was just thinking, Peter. That something-island ferry. Does it run back and forth all the time?
 
PETER
From all accounts, endlessly.
 
ANNA
Then there's every chance that my sons are on it at this very moment with their megaphones. (Pauses.) Do you hear anything?
 
PETER
No.
 
ANNA
Neither do I.
 
PETER
Forgive me, mama, but your sons…they sound like a couple of idiots.
 
ANNA
Yes. America seems to have done them no good. No good at all.
 
(They look upon each other warmly as the light fades.)
 
THE END
 



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