Meghan Kennedy’s play Napoli, Brooklyn, a family drama about an Italian immigrant family makes its European debut opening in London this month. I spoke to Madeline Worrall and Gloria Ontiri about taking on the roles of strong women that are at the forefront of this story.
It focuses on the Muscolino family who have raised three proud and passionate daughters in America after moving to Brooklyn from Napoli. Bonded by a fierce love for one another, it’s a poignant portrayal of family life.
“It has that archetypal shape of a drama of redemption, escape, belonging and identity,” Madeline says. “It’s about the dynamic between the first generation Italian immigrants who left Italy for America.”
Madeline plays Luda, an Italian mother who left for America and has three daughters who were born and raised in Brooklyn. There is a line in the show that she says – “I have no name here” which she feels represents the way these Italian immigrants felt. “It’s a powerful thing to say,” she tells me. “To say you have no status or recognition. Luda watches her husband break down and struggle with his identity and deal with whether he will ever get his name back. It looks at what that does to his pride and sense of self – which he then takes out on the family.”
“It’s a family drama of belonging, becoming and escaping.”
Gloria on the other hand plays Celie, an African American woman in New York who was born in Queens. “Celie works with and eventually befriends Tina, one of Luda’s daughters,” she says. “Celie has to deal with a terrible tragedy of her own in the play but essentially she dreams of a brighter and more lucrative future for herself and her husband Robert.
“She encourages Tina to look inside herself and do the same essentially and I think she represents the American dream, she portrays strength, hope and resilience as she fights for her dreams.”
Gloria expresses how wonderful it is to play a black woman on stage who is strong and has big dreams. “I was really excited to be able to represent that and play someone who is encouraging of another woman to live out her life – which I don’t think is something you see often from black characters on stage.”
Set in 1960, it’s a coming of age story of the three sisters as they grow up in an American world whilst dealing with their family’s extremely traditional values. At the same time, their mother Luda is dealing with the violence of her husband whilst trying to keep her family together.
“It is a play that will resonate with audiences for so many reasons,” Madeline explains. “There are millions of women who deal with difficult, violent and psychologically aggressive and angry men and find it difficult to leave them.”
Despite being set in 1960, the theme of different generations and the way they collide is something that happens no matter the era. “The conflict between different generations and how we should live as a society or individuals is always really difficult,” Madeline says. “Look at our society now, look at the divide in ages at the whole Brexit debate. Look at how young and old people vote, there are real fractures which I think operate in any era of history.
“It is very identifiable for now. It is set in 1960 but it isn’t a museum piece, it is about life, human beings and hearts that just happens to be set then.”
Gloria adds: “You have lots different women who are trying to forge a future for themselves and forge a dream. Not just for women but for men, it is totally relevant to today. It’s about being young and having a dream and perhaps that is something different to what your parents wanted you to do – that is an age old story.”
Madeline recalls reading in the Guardian that an agony aunt said the majority of the letters she gets are from women writing in about their tricky relationships with their mothers. “Usually mother/daughter relationships are so close but there is always a battle going on,” she says.
It’s a story that captures the highs and lows of family life. “I think it is a story about human struggle,” Madeline says. “It is the struggle of the heart and of love, so I hope that audiences are moved when they go on this journey with these characters.”
Gloria hopes people leave feeling hopeful. “The play is fast, very fiery and full of joy,” she says. “But it is also explosive and quite arresting yet poignant at the same time. I really think audiences will leave feeling uplifted by this story.”
Napoli, Brooklyn is on at the Park Theatre in London from Thu 13 June to Sat 13 July.