Three Trembling Cities – The Immigrant Experience in New York

On the eve of the American Revolution’s final battle at Yorktown, as portrayed in the musical Hamilton, Lafayette and Hamilton cross paths and, in a brief exchange, these two freedom fighters share a private moment of mutual admiration.  “Immigrants,” they shout in unison as they high-five each other, “we get the job done.”

I had the incredible good fortune to be sitting right in the front row (my husband and I won tickets through the online lottery) and the audience reaction to that exchange is one I’ll never forget. A roar of individual voices let loose such a fiery mix of shout outs, cheers, that’s right, yeah’s, hoots and hollers, I immediately realized everyone wanted in on that high five. Myself included. Lin Manuel Miranda may have authored the stage moment, but its truth belonged to all of us. Of course, that was in October. Four weeks before the election.

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Just eight months earlier I had met up with fellow filmmaker and long-time friend Arthur Vincie to discuss a script he had just completed for a ten-part web series on immigrants in New York City called Three Trembling Cities. He lifted the title from E.B. White’s famous 1949 essay “Here is New York.”  In what is essentially a love letter to New York, White observed that it is the settlers – those who come in quest of something – that give the city its passion. It is the immigrants, he understands, that make New York tremble with hope.

When Arthur invited me to come onboard as a producer, I didn’t hesitate. Back in February, the political rhetoric around the word immigrant had already hardwired into a freakish schizophrenia. Immigrants were increasingly labeled as either the source of all our ills or at the heart of what makes America great. The word itself, so burdened with outsize meaning, had been reduced to code for “other.”  In that capacity, it was headlined almost nightly on the evening news.

What I liked about Arthur’s script was his choice to build an ensemble of characters whose “otherness” is explored without resorting to the easy pitfalls of narrative extremes or self-conscious stereotype correction. He presents his characters through the shared humanity of their everyday struggles while infusing each with enough of an “immigrant” backstory to sharpen the prism through which we see them as individuals.

For example, Behrouz, a first-generation Iranian-American, whose parents sacrificed everything to give him a chance at the great American dream, feels compelled to constantly rationalize his choice to be an artist to his sister Azin, a high-powered lawyer. Babacar, a jewelry maker from Senegal, is forced, through no fault of his own, to negotiate his living in the shadows because his father brought him over with fake papers. And Madha, a Guyanese-American waitress, whose mother’s citizenship secured her own, watches helplessly as her roommate fails his merit hearing, leaving her in the hell that New Yorkers know as searching for a new apartment.

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 Arash Mokhtar as Behrouz

We crowdfunded the budget online, with donations coming primarily from the immigrant community, and by early spring we were casting. Putting out a call for actors to play everything from an Eritrean refugee to an aspiring chef from Kenya to a PhD candidate from India, like the musical Hamilton, emphasized the underutilized reservoir of talent that exists here in New York. The shooting took us all over the city – Sunset Park, Bushwick, Jackson Heights, Williamsburg, Brooklyn Heights and the lower east side –and by mid-summer all ten-episodes had been shot. By early fall we were ready to release season one. We knew the production was solid and hoped that despite having a shoe-string publicity budget, we could coax a slow build for the series online. Then the election happened.

The earthquake of the Trump Presidency spread a tsunami of fear and uncertainty across the city. Swastikas defaced a playground named after the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch. A transit worker wearing a hijab was pushed down the stairs at Grand Central. And an Arab-American policewoman and 16-year veteran of the force was verbally harassed, accused of being a member of ISIS and told to go back home.

By releasing our ten-part web-series for free on multiple web platforms – Amazon Direct, Brooklyn on Demand, Rikaroo, Stareable and Vimeo – we hope it can serve not only as a worthwhile piece of filmmaking but also as an educational tool and starting point for dialogue that can breakdown the stigma of the “other” and remind everyone what E.B. White recognized 67 years ago:

There are roughly three New Yorks… the New York of those who were born here… the New York of the commuter… and the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities, the greatest is the last – the city of final destination… Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.
-E. B. White, Here Is New York

I like to imagine that E.B. White, perched in some kind of fantastic writer’s heaven, has checked out the musical “Hamilton” and feels that Layfayette and Hamilton’s high-five belongs to him, too.

Top photo: Madha (Pascale Piquion) and Babacar (Yacine Djoumbaye)

Three Trembling Cities, a new ten-part web series on New York City immigrants, is now available on Amazon.com, Rikaroo.com, Brooklynondemand.com, Stareable.com and Vimeo.