Q&A: Moisés Kaufman reflects on the roots of our divisions
NEW YORK (AP) — Seven years ago, Moisés Kaufman was approached to direct the Broadway musical “Paradise Square” and, after reading it, he immediately said yes.
“I did this show because it spoke to me,” the Venezuelan theater director and playwright says. “So much of my work occurs at the intersection of the personal and the political. I like to look at history through the eyes of the other, through the eye of the person that doesn’t get to tell their story.”
Now “Paradise Square” — about unity and racism in New York’s notorious Five Points neighborhood, where Irish immigrants and Black Americans jostled to survive in the years before the Civil War — is nominated for 10 Tony Awards, including best musical, best lead actress for Joaquina Kalukango, and best featured actor for both Sidney DuPont and A.J. Shively.
During a recent interview with The Associated Press, Kaufman, himself an immigrant based in New York City, reflected on immigration and the roots of American divisions.
“Immigration is a great fallacy, because you never leave the country where you were born, and you never arrive in the country where you land. Your being is always divided, part of you is there and part of you is here,” he said.
The founder of Tectonic Theater Project — best known for “The Laramie Project” and who has received awards including the National Medal of Arts — also spoke about the relevance of the show today and the powerhouse that is Kalukango as the courageous bar owner Nelly O’Brien.
Remarks have been edited for brevity and clarity.
AP: You have directed plays on Broadway, but this is your first Broadway musical. Did you expect “Paradise Square” to get 10 nominations?
KAUFMAN: No, I did not expect it. It was a great joy to hear that and to get that, and it’s been really rewarding! I did this show because it spoke to me. I don’t know, something about looking at America through the eyes of that community, a community where Irish immigrants and Black natives were getting married and living together and doing business together in 1863! When in the South, Black people were still slaves, here there was a community where people were living and loving together. It spoke to me.
AP: You are also an immigrant directing a show about immigrants. How did this inform the process?
KAUFMAN: Well, that was another way into the material. Like a lot of immigrants, we arrive here with a dream, with an expectation of what we want our lives to be like. And we have this whole mythology of what America provides and what one is able to do in America. And invariably, whether you succeed or you fail, you have to confront the reality of America. There’s always a gap between the reality of America and the dream of America. I think that the poorer you are, the distance between that reality and that image widens. So, of course, it’s much harder for a poor person to come to America and realize their dreams than it is for a wealthy person to come to America and realize their dreams. I don’t know, there was something about these immigrants arriving in this country and then finding community with the least likely of partners that really spoke to me.
AP: What was the biggest challenge of directing this show?
KAUFMAN: The biggest challenge was that we knew that we wanted to tell an epic story. You don’t see musicals of this size on Broadway anymore or on the West End. You know, they’re un-producible — 36 actors on stage, 10 more actors off stage just being standbys, an orchestra of 50 people. It is a very big musical. At times we felt like, who do we want the audience to fall in love with and follow for the course of the play when you have so many characters? And how do you craft it in a way that you can follow all of them, and that you can follow the intricacies of this historical musical?
AP: Joaquina Kalukango gets a standing ovation before the show even ends — after “Let It Burn.” What can you tell me about her? Do you ever worry she might get sick?
KAUFMAN: We have two understudies for her, and they’re both very good. But Joaquina — every so often a monster arrives at the theater and that’s her, she’s a theatrical monster. And in real life she’s the most unassuming person in the world. She’s a Juilliard graduate, she’s a brilliant actor, and she can sing like that. It’s just an astonishing thing to watch.
AP: “Paradise Square” happens in the 1800s, but it is still very relevant. What is the most important message that people can get from this musical today?
KAUFMAN: I’m always a little afraid of that question, because I feel that if I tell you the message that I want people to get, I am denying the audience part of the fun, which is for them to figure out what they see in the play. But what I can tell you is that what interested me is to see how deep the roots of our divisions are, and to see what are the forces that keep fueling those divisions. You know, America is a melting pot where nothing ever melted. So how do we aspire to a more perfect union? I think that the answer to that is by really understanding what are the things that tear us apart, and the play talks a lot about that.
Sigal Ratner-Arias is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sigalratner.