'The Celestials': 'The play isn't going away'
NORTH ADAMS — The timing could not have been better.
On Saturday (June 13) afternoon, at 5 p.m., Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art will host on its Facebook page a live virtual event marking, to the day, the arrival 150 years ago of 75 immigrant Chinese laborers to North Adams — unwitting strikebreakers who spoke no English. But this Facebook event — which Mass MoCA officials are hoping to make available to the general public outside of Facebook — wasn't meant to be. It's Plan B; the lemonade you make when life hands you lemons. It's a replacement for what had been scheduled as a staged reading in May of award-winning playwright Peter Glazer's stage adaptation of Chinese-American writer Karen Shepard's novel, "The Celestials."
The Facebook participants include Glazer, Shepard, members of the cast performing scenes from the play from their respective sanctuaries across the United States and in South Korea; local historians Justyna Carlson, chair of the North Adams Historical Commission; her husband, Gene, secretary of the North Adams Historical Society; Charles Cahoon, president of the North Adams Historical Society; and several descendants of that original group of 75, who were brought to North Adams to replace striking union workers at Charles Sampson's shoe factory. The Facebook event is a collaboration among Mass MoCA, MCLA and the North Adams Historical Society, Inc.
A professor at the University of California-Berkeley, where he teaches directing and performance studies, Glazer has been in North Adams since January, working on the play. The idea, he said in a telephone interview, was to present a series of readings of sections of the play over a period of months, culminating May 7 with a reading of the full play in Mass MoCA's Club B-10. It was to have been the play's official introduction.
"We managed to do the first two readings," Glazer said. Then, enter COVID-19 and the shutdown of Mass MoCA, along with everything else. So, time to make the lemonade.
"I had known about the June 13 anniversary," Glazer said, "so I thought of putting together a program with Karen, members of the Historical Society and Commission. I was even able to contact a descendant of Charlie Sing (foreman of the Chinese workers; the only English speaker among them).
"I wanted people who would bring different perspectives. I wanted something that is less about celebrating the play than it is about honoring the arrival of the Chinese workers using the play as an instrument."
Glazer said he began discussing the book with Shepard — a cousin, he admits — roughly three years ago.
He had heard of Mass MoCA but never visited.
Glazer came up to North Adams; spent time in Mass MoCA's spaces; gathering thoughts and impressions; writing.
What he has now, he said, is an essentially finished play, which may yet need a few tweaks here and there. He is talking with Mass MoCA about rescheduling the full reading for spring or summer of 2021. He also has some thoughts about the play's future beyond Mass MoCA; perhaps a full student production at Berkeley.
"There might be some interest here in Massachusetts," Glazer said. "Many of the Chinese laborers who came to North Adams eventually left and were involved in establishing Boston's Chinatown.
"The play isn't going away."
To view the event, visit facebook.com/massmoca.
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