“We did not come to this country so that I can work in a fish factory for the rest of my life.”
– Isabella, Calling Us Home
As the child of two immigrants, the severity of dialogue around immigration around the world is not lost on me. However, political talk often becomes news fodder and later poorly articulated conversations on social media. Both instances, usually, further erase the people most impacted by immigration politics…the migrants themselves.
Calling Us Home, a musical by Alice Gillham, is the story of a young African girl, Grace; who leaves her war stricken home country for an American metropolitan city. While she’s there, she falls in love with Rafael, a Spanish laborer. Set in a big city, the two characters experience the different stories of “coming to America.” Narrated by Nelson, Grace’s brother, audiences watch characters face the dangers of the criminal underworld which many immigrants must endure in the hopes of “a better life.”
Conceptualizing Calling Us Home
Alice Gillham conceptualized Calling Us Home while living in London. “During that period of time, there was an enormous focus on displacement,” she says, recalling why it was important to write about the individual human stories associated with immigration. Throughout the show, there was no indication of where exactly the musical took place; including the time period. For Alice, the show is not to unpack the political implications of immigration, but the primary intent was to write each character in a way that made their story relatable.
At the same time, Calling Us Home is purposefully not a political statement; it is a social statement, though. Alice maintained ambiguity towards time and geography, in addition she did the same with race, however highlighting gender, albeit subtly. Her cast was diverse, and the race of each character did not play as influential a role in their engagements, if it played a role at all. As an audience member, there was a point where it seemed as if each character was racially equal to the next. One particular theme Calling Us Home overtly touched on was Gender-Based Violence (GBV) against womxn, especially in relation to organized crime.
Musicals are like new age operas
“What I wanted people to feel was empathy and compassion,” Alice explains. Her goal, when penning this musical, was to demystify the stories of immigrants, and make them individual, tangible, and real. While her subject matter was not presented in a heavy and emotionally taxing manner, it is still valuable. The beauty of theater is that worldly issues are made understandable, instead of existing solely as news headlines.
Opera is an example of musical theater, although far more dramatic, and often stereotyped as a dated art form. Regardless of this, music is universal; just like the stories of migrants and displaced peoples. Alice had this in mind when she first thought about making Calling Us Home. According to her, “We turn to music when we need to explore how we feel about things. I don’t want people think about this, I want them to feel about this!”
Images shot by Oscar O Ryan