America-in Play’s-“Crossing Over”

America-in-Play, a collective of theatre scholars and artists, presented their riff on nineteenth century Medicine Shows, entitled “Crossing Over” at the MESTC on April 19th. The title was apt in many senses of the word, as the group’s playwrights and actors blended old and new, comedy and pathos in a format that was full of music and drama. Medicine Shows, as Jenn Worth mentions in her previous post , was a major form of popular entertainment during the nineteenth century, especially for rural audiences. They are perhaps more familiar to us in the corners of frames of Westerns, where the Snake Oil salesman promises to cure the likes of ulcers, weak eyesight, hearing loss, hair loss, rheumatism, you name it with his brand new elixir. In reality, they were more akin to a type of variety theatre circuit where salesmanship was only one part of the entertainment (and by the looks of it, boy, was it entertaining!). By centering our focus on the skits and personalities of Medicine Shows, AIP fleshes out how important—and fun—these shows were to the audiences.

The story of “Crossing Over” is loosely framed by a Medicine Show styled entertainment and story about an Irish immigrant’s travels around the country. Along the way, he encounters a cross-section of American society. With individual playwrights given different sections to write, the style is necessarily loose. Based on nineteenth century life and entertainment, we get a picture of the American city of the period that is a mix of the picturesque, sentimental, and, occasionally, tragic. AIP’s project asks key questions about the relationship between a performance form and its historical context. Can the genre alone inform our understanding of a historical period? Of ours? Especially in the wake of the Arizona immigrant law, how can it inform our own debates? One gets a sense of the Medicine Show and of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century immigrant experience, but one wonders how they fit together. AIP’s presentation was a pared-down version of a larger work that should answer these questions. With songs.

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