A “melting pot.”
It is assumed that the term describes the uniting of different peoples from different cultures and the communitas—or universal human experience—that results from their dense quarters. A melting pot, however, is a metaphor for cultural assimilation, and its meaning is derived from the 1908 Israel Zangwill drama of the same name, which is receiving its first English language revival since 1909. An intense drama, The Melting Pot follows a Jewish émigré, who, having survived a pogrom that massacres his siblings and parents in tsarist Russia, resides with relatives in tenement New York.
David Quixano, a promising composer, wants to transcend his past and, through assimilation, create a new life. In wanting to become American, however, problems arise when non-Jewish people learn about his cultural origins. His uncle, Mendel, detests the fact that he considers assimilating, while his romantic interest, Vera Revendal, the daughter of a Russian baron, entertains the idea, as assimilation will lessen the upset her father feels when her love for a Jewish man is professed. The complicated feelings of the characters reach their melting points during the startling climax of the four-act drama. It is hard for the viewer to sustain interest in the characters during Act II, for example, but the shared past between Jewish David and non-Jewish Baron Revendal promises to renew interest and egross the viewer during Acts III and IV.
Robert Z. Kalfin has done masterful work with the actors. Since the production is directed with seating on three sides of the stage, the actors perform with their backs to the viewer at times, but the actors emote and communicate without the viewer having to see their faces. Under the direction of Kalfin, the actors use their bodies as well as their voices to deliver excellent performances. Daniel Shevlin and Margaret Loesser Robinson are excellent as David and Vera. Page Hearn is outstanding as disapproving Baron Revendal. Kendall Rileigh, as the anti-Semitic Irish maid, provides needed comedic respites from intense subject matter. In the almost nonspeaking role of Frau Quixano, Suzanne Toren is unparalleled. Her character speaks no more than two minutes of dialogue during the 150-minute drama, but her movements and expressions of a powerless matriarch enliven her character without her having to speak.
It is hard to imagine The Melting Pot as melodrama. The production is without stock movements and gestures, and the text is without stock characters. The drama uses music to increase emotional responses and finishes in high spirits, but its subject matter—an achievement for 1908—is substantive, resonant and powerful in 2006. (The language anti-Semitic characters use to demean their Jewish counterparts is camp, provoking laughter,—as if the viewer were watching a 1950s B-movie [think Imitation of Life with Susan Kohner]—but the language is shocking and racist.) The Melting Pot dramatizes sensitive issues and airs racist thought processes that, though the viewer envisions them as not manifest in 2006, persist. What is more, the personal struggles David experiences are ones with which the viewer identifies. In short, The Melting Pot is an incredible drama that deserves attention.
In a nation that puts extreme emphasis on the (supposed) silliness of political correctness, nationalism, and merging identities,—we are all part of the human race, right?—assimilation is the means through which people are beseeched to bond with and understand each other. It is important that the dangers of assimilation are realized, however, and The Melting Pot affirms that difference is empowering,—for reasons good and bad—cultivating self-esteem, pride, and groundedness.