Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winner Our Town had a reputation for white bread sentimentality by the time Michel Hausmann read it in New York a few years ago. But the Venezuelan immigrant found himself riveted by the 1938 story of a New Hampshire village, worlds away from his native Caracas.
“I was blown away by how universal it was,” says Hausmann, Miami New Drama’s artistic director. “This is not a nostalgia piece about the good old days. This is about being alive on earth — now!”
Hausmann’s vision was a prescient one. After decades under a cloud of Norman Rockwell cliché, Wilder’s most famous play is becoming newly relevant. This fall saw a Manchester production whose diverse community cast included a Muslim actor as the Stage Manager, aimed at uniting the British city after the terrorist attack in May; and multi-racial performers in a Chicago version furthered a trend made a sensation by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. Tom Perotta, author of The Leftovers and co-creator of the HBO drama, was inspired by how the play finds meaning in mundane details.
Now Hausmann wants polycultural, immigrant-filled Miami to feel that Our Town is their town. That this story of growing up, falling in love, passing on, and our ordinary, infinitely precious life, is their story. “We all want to find love,” says Hausmann. “We all miss our dead.”
To help Miamians find themselves in Grovers Corners, Hausmann enlisted two Miami playwrights, Cuban-American Nilo Cruz and Haitian-American Jeff Augustin, to translate scenes with the key families into Spanish and Creole – making the central couple – in a diverse cast – bi-racial as well as bi-cultural.
“A Haitian-American family will look at this and go ‘that is a classic Haitian-American family’,” says Hausmann. “A Hispanic family will say ‘this is exactly how we are in our home!’”
Where better to stage a 21st century rendition of an essential American drama than in a city that is redefining what it means to be American?
“When we present an Our Town that looks and feels like us, we challenge the audience to ask: “What does America look like?” says Hausmann.
Miami New Drama helps answers that question. To understand that, just like Wilder’s title, Our Town says, this really is — our town.