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Parkville Project Tells Local Tale Of Immigration

Vanessa De La Torre

July 11, 2010

People now go to 150 New Park Ave. for groceries and the Redbox that dispenses DVD rentals for cheap.

But there was a time, long before the Super Stop & Shop, when the site belonged to the Royal Typewriter Co. and its ornate brick-and-mortar factory, where at one point more than 5,000 people reported to work. Nearby, on Arbor Street, was the home of the Underwood typewriter. Next to that building, was a Gothic-style factory that manufactured the first pay phones in the United States.

Each helped make Hartford's Parkville a center of American industry in the early 1900s, and in turn, a magnet for immigrants seeking steady work.

That era in city history and today's vehement immigration debate are presented in a new, 90-minute play called "The Parkville Project" that opened Wednesday and shows through Sunday, July 18, at West Hartford's Playhouse on Park, less than a mile down the road from the Hartford neighborhood. The Bated Breath Theatre Company, whose founding members are all affiliated with the University of Connecticut, co-produced the work with Playhouse.

The inspiration, says the play's director and UConn acting professor Helene Kvale, initially came from bricks and architecture.

A visit to Real Art Ways in the former Underwood building was Kvale's introduction to Parkville's industrial past. Then in early 2008, searching for a "local story" to create for the new Bated Breath, Kvale said, she and playwright Michael Bradford began an exploration of the neighborhood.

Kvale, born in Norway, said last week that she interviewed at least several dozen residents and shop owners over a two-year period. She attended Parkville Business Association meetings; she spoke with beat cops. The blonde, with an accent from her years in England, tried to connect with people from countries such as Brazil, El Salvador, Peru, Chile, Portugal and Haiti.

"The more you go into the same bakery I spent a lot of money on coffee and baked goods," Kvale said with a small laugh, "the more they're likely to open up."

In the end, she and Bradford came away with "impressions" to inform the storyline. They include the 1992 fire that destroyed the long-vacant Royal Typewriter factory; and, in November 2007, after a shooting in which a Brazilian-born man was the suspect, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids that rounded up 21 people suspected of being illegal immigrants from Brazil.

Fear, Kvale said, was still fresh.

The first time she set out to interview people, a video camera was in tow, "and that was a mistake," Kvale said. A wall of suspicion was up in seconds.

After that experience, "the generosity of people was phenomenal. I would take notes and I would speak in my broken Spanish, and I don't speak any Portuguese," Kvale said. Mentioning that it was a theater piece helped. But Kvale also avoided deeply probing questions, and she did not jot down names.

Sean Harris, an artistic director for Playhouse on Park, said he believed the play had no political agenda. "It has truthful storytelling," Harris said. "You're really following the story of it and not the issue" of immigration.

Yet there is certainly sympathy for the lead character. Undocumented worker Amalia Piniero Sedano, played by Vanessa Soto of New Haven, descends from a line of dreamers.

Her grandfather, Eduardo Sedano, was a Cuban sugar cane worker who caught one of the nearly 200 Royal typewriters from Hartford that were parachuted onto a Havana field in the real 1927 drop. Amalia's father is Argulio, a journalist who is imprisoned for 12 years after writing articles on his Royal Quiet DeLuxe that are critical of the Cuban regime.

They both, in their own time, ended up in Parkville. So did Amalia, a 26-year-old from Portugal who comes to Hartford to find the father she has never met, but has known through the Royal-typed letters, which suddenly stopped arriving.

Amalia works the night shift as a cleaner in the Underwood building. Not for long, though: Hartford police, cooperating with ICE agents after a neighborhood shooting, arrest her during a raid.

At one point, Amalia laments that the police might not capture the shooter, yet they will haul in people like her. "I'm easy to arrest with my broom and my duster. I'm ready to overthrow the world with these," she says, sarcastically.

Kvale characterizes the play as "a human story" grounded in themes of migration, mobility and communication, and what "people will do to improve the lives of their family and be together as much as possible."

It's a story told with the backing of the Marks Family Endowment in Fine Arts at UConn, which offered a $12,500 grant; the United Arts Campaign through the Greater Hartford Arts Council; and seed money from various UConn departments.

For Bated Breath, producing a professional show on a tight budget also required some of the play's creative minds to pocket little to nothing for their services.

"Everyone who's an artist wants to be involved in something like this," explained movement director Nicole Phaneuf of East Haddam. "It's new, and it tells a great story. And for me, it's close to my heart."

In 2007, her sister-in-law was detained for five days in an immigration detention center in Texas after a border patrol stop. Although the woman was married to Phaneuf's brother, an American, she had not yet received her green card.

The play, a nonlinear collage of scenes, has a few interactive elements intended to feel abrupt in the spare, 163-seat theater. By the time the show begins, Phaneuf said, "you might not be sitting next to the people you came with."

Playhouse on Park is at 244 Park Road in West Hartford. Its website is playhouseonpark.org. "The Parkville Project" plays through Sunday, July 18. Tickets are: for students, seniors, Let's Go Arts, $20. Adults are $25 on weekdays and Sundays and $30 on Fridays and Saturdays. Student rush tickets are available for $10 fifteen minutes before curtain with valid student ID, cash only. There is a summer lunchtime ticket special go to the box office between noon and 1 p.m. the day of the show and buy $5 tickets for that evening's performance.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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