Sherlindary Berrios stood in the center of the room at Mechanics’ Hall in Portland and stretched out her hand. The fortune teller spoke first in Dari, then Spanish.
“You will drink much water in a foreign land,” she told Berrios.
Berrios was rehearsing the opening scene of “CarmXn,” a reinterpretation of the classic opera by Cape Elizabeth-based arts residency Hogfish. She came to Maine 10 months ago from Venezuela and is now a student at Deering High School. She dreams of becoming an actress and has joined a diverse professional cast for her first role.
Two young theater companies are presenting works in Portland this summer that center on immigrant stories. “CarmXn,” which has three performances starting Wednesday, moves the classic opera from 19th century Spain to the present day at the U.S.-Mexico border. “Sanctuary City,” a play by Martyna Majok about undocumented teenagers in the wake of 9/11, will close the Portland Theater Festival in August.
Both companies said they feel these productions are critically important at this moment. Over 1,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Portland this year to start new lives in a safer place, and city officials and residents are still grappling with the best response.
“The question of immigration and new American life, it’s coming to a head in our community in new ways that are different from ways that we’ve experienced it in the past,” said Dave Register, who founded the Portland Theater Festival in 2021.
Reza Jalali, executive director of the Immigrant Welcome Center in Portland, agreed that theater is an important tool to tell and hear the stories of New Mainers.
“More than passing laws and regulations, in order to humanize one community or another, art plays a role,” said Jalali. “It really helps us to understand the factors that we might not be aware of.”
Maria Brea has sung the part of Micaëla in the opera “Carmen” 12 times. But never like this.
“It’s more human and more real,” said the soprano, who is based in New York City and in the cast of “CarmXn.”
Edwin and Matt Cahill, husbands and founders of Hogfish who adapted the familiar opera in a new setting, said the original by French composer Georges Bizet was shocking to its early audiences because the title character was a woman who broke convention. She did not wear a corset or shoes, she smoked cigarettes, she lived outside the traditional boundaries of society.
“So we’re going back to those roots,” said Edwin Cahill.
“And asking how does this resonate today in a way that it did back then?” added Matt Cahill.
They decided to explore the concept of boundaries: of geopolitics, gender, genre. CarmXn is an undocumented Afro-Caribbean immigrant, and Don José is an officer for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement with a French-Canadian background. The bullfighter (toreador in Spanish) is recast as a drag performer (named Tori Adore). The traditional score is supplemented by mariachi band orchestration and an electronic flamenco dance party. New dialogue is spoken in English, Spanish, French and Dari (a language spoken in Afghanistan).
Brea, who is originally from Venezuela, said thinking about Micaëla as a multilingual immigrant added a depth to the role that she had never considered before and that she will use in the future.
The characters in this version all seem more complex than the stereotypes that can define them in other productions, she said. Brea also will bring musical influences from her native country to her performance for the first time as she plays the ocarina and sings an Afro-Venezuelan chant.
“Everyone is going to be doing something very interesting and very personal,” she said.
While working on “CarmXn,” Edwin Cahill traveled to volunteer with Abara, a nonprofit that works between El Paso in Texas and Ciudad Juarez in Mexico. Hogfish, which is in its second season, is partnering with that organization to bring “CarmXn” to the border itself in the future. They have been thinking about how that border is far away but still has connections to Maine: through asylum seekers who made that perilous crossing to come here, or the local operations of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
With that in mind, they reached out to Jalali at the Immigrant Welcome Center. Jalali met with the cast to help them learn more about the immigrant community in Maine and share his own story as an Iranian Kurd who came to the United States as a refugee. He told them about the words a fortune teller told his mother when he was just a baby: “Your son is going to drink lots of water in a strange land.” His mother wept, realizing her infant would someday be separated from family and country. The cast of “CarmXn” asked Jalali if they could incorporate his story in the opera, and that prophecy will be echoed in the newly written opening scene with Berrios.
Jalali, who also has written a play, worked with Hogfish to find local immigrants who could perform in guest roles. He also will help distribute free tickets to those who could not otherwise afford them. He said New Mainers often face barriers to participating in the local art scene.
“The cost of really accessing art, be it at the museum or the Merrill Auditorium or the concerts, is quite high, and it’s getting higher with this inflation,” said Jalali. “At a personal level and as an advocate for low-income New Mainers, I’ve always been struggling with how a family of four could afford to go and listen to music or go to see a play or go to the community’s museum. We’ve got to address it as a community that we are denying some people because of their income status from accessing art and culture. Art has to be accessible to all.”
The Cahills said they hope their adaptation of “CarmXn” shares a message of hope, community and freedom.
“I really feel like this story has a little something for everyone, whether you’ve grown up in Maine like I did, you’re a gay man, you’re a Latinx community member who’s recently here, or someone from Africa coming here, or someone from Quebec who is visiting for the summer,” said Edwin Cahill. “At the end, we all see how many similarities we have rather than differences and how powerful that can be.”
NEED FOR NUANCE
Meanwhile, rehearsals are underway for “Sanctuary City,” which focuses on two immigrant teenagers in post-9/11 Newark, New Jersey, who have come to rely on each other as they navigate the challenges of being undocumented in America and try to realize their dreams.
The writer, Majok, is a Polish immigrant who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for an earlier play, “Cost of Living.” In “Sanctuary City,” she did not give the lead characters full names (they are “B” and “G”) or specify their countries of origin. She requests only that they not be played by actors of Western European origin.
Shawn Denegre-Vaught, who plays B, lives in New York and is the son of immigrants from Costa Rica and Mexico. He said he saw humanity in the script that drew him to the characters, and working on this play has given him the opportunity to ask his family questions about their own story that he has never posed before. He described “Sanctuary City” as “a love letter.”
“When I first read the play, I felt myself crying tears of joy to have that recognition and to finally feel represented as someone who loves my culture, my family, and also tears of resentment because of the brutality immigrants must endure,” he said.
Register, the Portland Theater Festival founder, grew up in Cape Elizabeth and returned to Maine from Los Angeles during the pandemic. He aims to bring diverse stories to the festival and sees “Sanctuary City” as a timely piece for Portland. While the state has become more diverse than when he was young, he said, the ongoing debates about how to respond to an influx of asylum seekers remind him that more change is needed.
“I look around today, and I sense a lack of nuance still, and we’re talking about nearly 25 years later,” he said. “I wanted to do a play that in its own way contributes and plays a small part in providing a little more nuance to the conversation around immigration in Portland. I wanted the immigrant experience to be represented on stage.”
He plans to partner with local groups to engage the city’s immigrant community in the play and make sure it is accessible to those who want to see it. Also in the audience will be Denegre-Vaught’s family.
“Hopefully, they feel seen,” he said. “I’m doing this play for them too.”
PORTLAND, Maine – Nov. 7, 2022 – Mechanics’ Hall, a 163-year-old building located at 519 Congress Street in the heart of Portland’s Arts District and formerly known as the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association, is now listed as a Nationally Significant Landmark Building on the National Register of Historic Places after a rigorous application process, and nearly 50 years since the building was first listed as a Local Landmark within the Registry. The new designation will help to draw attention to the building and its urgent preservation needs, as well as open up funding opportunities on a federal level.
“Mechanics’ Hall is thrilled to receive this significant upgrade to our historic status,” said Executive Director Annie Leahy. “The Hall is a stunning representation of Portland’s cultural history and is overdue for repairs that will help preserve this beautiful building and ensure its legacy and influence for decades to come.”
The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation’s historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America’s historic and archeological resources.
Designed by Maine’s first architect, Thomas J. Sparrow and built from 1857-59 by the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association, the building houses a lending library, grand ballroom, boardroom, and small classroom, which is often used as a gallery space. Mechanics’ Hall has two ground floor commercial rental spaces currently occupied by The Art Mart, an art supply store, as well as the Maine Crafts Association, which opened its first Portland store in the summer of 2018.
“This important designation recognizes the magnificance of our Italianate-style building,” said former Board Chair Paul Stevens, “and acknowledges the early work of our members to support Maine’ sartisans and craftspeople.” Stevens’ great-grandfather, the architect John Calvin Stevens, designed the grand ballroom on the third floor of Mechanics’ Hall.
“Getting people inside, particularly on the heels of the pandemic, has been critical to raising awareness that, in a city seeing rapid growth and new development, Mechanics’ Hall is wonderfuly old and deserves to be saved,” said Leahy.
Mechanics’ Hall Press Release Page 1
Leahy was appointed Executive Director in 2019 by the board of directors in a concerted effort to position the organization as a cultural resource. In just three years, Mechanics’ Hall has become a sought after arts and cultural destination that welcomes approximately 500 people through its doors every month.
In the last year alone, the Hall has hosted 50 literary programs and book launches, including partnerships with the National Book Foundation and Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, as well as 10 musical performances, 21 art installations and maker events, and other performances in collaboration with Portland Ovations, the Portland Chamber Music Festival and the Portland Theater Festival.
Despite programmatic success, the Hall is in dire need of a new roof, a project that is estimated at $1.8 million. The National Significance designation will provide additional opportunities for Mechanics’ Hall to apply for federal funding for building repairs and restoration.
In 2021, Greater Portland Landmarks listed Mechanics’ Hall on its 6th “Places in Peril” listing, which calls attention to threats facing community-defining, historically-significant places in the Greater Portland area.
“This new National Significance designation will help raise awareness to a wider audience of supporters and that is critical to help ensure that The Hall remains a living connection to Portland’s past while serving the organization’s long-standing mission, ‘to make knowledge, ideas, and arts accessible, ” says Sarah Hansen, Executive Director of Landmarks.
The organization completed a five-year strategic plan in 2022 that positions Mechanics’ Hall as a vital community resource and partner for individuals and organizations working in arts and humanities. It also includes prioritizing the stewardship and preservation of their historic building as a substantial contribution to the cultural sector in Maine.
“The Founders of Mechanics’ Hall understood that literary arts and humanities give voice and dimension to our community and help us to make sense of the world,” said Board Chair Bill Stauffer. “This National Significance recognition acknowledges the importance of saving places like Mechanics’ Hall in our city.”
“Mechanics’ Hall has been a landmark in downtown Portland since 1859. Its stately presence on Congress Street bears witness to the vital contributions that the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association and its members have made to the creative life of the city for more than two hundred years,” says Maine State Historian Earle G. Shettleworth, Jr.
ABOUT MECHANICS’ HALL:
In 1815, the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association formed to support Maine’s creative community: they were blacksmiths, coopers, artists, innovators and creators. Between 1857 and 1859, they built Mechanics’ Hall in Portland – a communal gathering space with a library at its center. Today, Mechanics’ Hall celebrates that rich history through literary arts programs, music, performance and more while working to restore its landmark building as a vibrant cultural resource.
To learn more, please visit Mechanics’ Hall at mechanicshallmaine.org and follow the organization on Instagram @maine.mechanics for weekly programming and community updates.
Claire Jeffers, Jeffers.Claire@gmail.com, 703-622-9012
Portland, Maine: Mechanics’ Hall, in partnership with the Foundation for Portland Public Schools, has announced a new initiative to provide free membership to all Portland Public School staff. Called “Share the Love”, the program gives any staff member who chooses to participate a free one-year membership, which includes access to the organization’s borrowing library, events, and educational programs.
“The past 12 months have been some of the most difficult for our community. And still, many – including Mechanics’ – have experienced incredible generosity, showing us how fortunate we are here in Portland, Maine,” said Executive Director Annie Leahy. “The kindness shown to us by members, patrons, and new friends has been tremendous…” Read full press release here.
By Annie Leahy, Executive Director & Paul Stevens, Board President – Not long after the current pandemic forced us to close the Hall to the public in March, we began to wonder what we might learn from the generation of mechanics who endured the flu pandemic of 1918. We searched through our accessible archives, hoping to unearth a cataloged letter or report to gain a bit of wisdom from their hardship that might ease our own. We could find nothing. Read the full letter here.
By Susan Axelrod – In addition to its highly visible architecturally significant buildings and spaces, Portland has a number of gems that are, in effect, hiding in plain sight: the Portland Masonic Temple, Wilde Memorial Chapel in Evergreen Cemetery, and the garden at the Wadsworth–Longfellow House, to name a few. Just a block from the garden is another hidden jewel: Mechanics’ Hall. Like its other Congress Street neighbor, the Masonic Temple, Mechanics’ Hall has storefronts facing the street, which help to keep the 160-year-old building’s larger purpose under wraps, as well as provide income for its owner, the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association (MCMA). Full article here.
By Bob Keyes – For three years, Sen. Angus King of Maine observed the ongoing work to restore the cast-iron dome of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., unaware that a craftsman with ties to Maine was leading the effort to return the landmark to its magnificence.
He watched as a mountain of scaffolding was erected around the dome’s exterior, and each day sparked a new question in the senator’s mind about details, scope and challenges of the project. On Friday, King will have a chance to get answers to his questions, when he introduces Robert Baird of Brooklin at the 2019 Sparrow Lecture at Portland’s Mechanics’ Hall, presented by the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association. Full article here.
PORTLAND, Maine – Mechanics’ Hall Board of Directors today announced the appointment of Annie Leahy as the organization’s inaugural Executive Director. Leahy will start her post on April 22nd. She joins Mechanics’ as the organization begins a process of planning for major building and facility improvements that will allow the Hall to present a wide variety of creative and artistic programs which honor the mission of the MCMA – to inspire and enrich the community by promoting ingenuity, creativity, innovation, and the diffusion of useful knowledge.
“We are thrilled that Annie has accepted this leadership position with Mechanics’ Hall,” said outgoing Board President Pam Plumb. “Throughout the interview process, she acknowledged our history, spoke to our mission, and articulated a strong programmatic vision for our future. Her experience, energy and drive will be a great asset to the organization.”
Leahy comes to Mechanics’ with over 20 years experience working at both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. She’s held senior positions in New York City at ABC News, the Tribeca Film Institute and the Tribeca Film Festival. She moved to Portland, Maine in 2009 as the Executive Producer and Director of Programming for PopTech. She currently serves as Board Chair at SPACE Gallery and is on the advisory board for Portland Bach Experience. Full article here.
By Bob Keyes – The Mechanics’ Hall in downtown Portland will be draped in color for the First Friday Art Walk when a Portland-based organization dedicated to reducing winter heating costs in Maine demonstrates how much heat the old building is losing and how much more efficiently it could operate.
The projection, presented by Passivhaus Maine, an organization that promotes low-energy construction, will be shown between 6 and 7:30 p.m. Friday. It is a stylized vision of the actual thermal imaging of the building, taken last February, showing hot spots where heat is seeping from the building and cooler spots where there’s better insulation to hold heat in and keep cold out. The projection lasts a little less than two minutes, and will be shown every 10 minutes or so, over the course of the evening. It also will include general information about the advantages of energy-wise construction and renovation, the pervasiveness of heat loss and what people can do about it. Full article here.
By Herb Adams – SPRING IS HERE bringing the 10-speeds out into Portland’s newly painted bike lanes and happy pedalers out in quest of health, fresh air, and faraway places.
As they whiz through Bayside, few know they travel hallowed ground, for here in Bayside was born the velocipede craze that bloomed into Maine’s long love affair with the bicycle. Full article here on page 8.