Diana Iuele-Colilli and Christine Sansalone’s short theater plays,I panni sporchi si lavano in famiglia and Ma che brava gente, lead us on a journey through the Italian-Canadian experience, from the immigrants’ arrival to their progressive assimilation into the Canadian lifestyle, revisited in light of Italian culture’s emphasis on honor and respectability.
The two-act Ma che brava gente condenses the central moments in the life of two Italian-Canadian families living in Sudbury (Canada) from the 1960s until today, addressing the anxiety of the arrival, the emotional first phone call to Italy, the first hard workday, misunderstandings in the classroom, the organization of an Italian-Canadian wedding and, in the end, the difficulties with technology. The common thread of the six skits of the plays lies in the language adopted by the various characters, representative not only of the linguistic compromise between Italian and Canadian English, but also of the social compromise associated with accepting a new culture without betraying the old one. The Italian-Canadian experience thus emerges as a blending of the bitterness of «past times» with the wellbeing of the present times, a mixture of differences and contradictions that is overcome thanks to the playwrights’ poignant irony.
I panni sporchi si lavano in famigliadepicts an Italian family living in Canada apparently obsessed with the notions of virtue and honor, which do not necessarily go together. The title, a play on the Italian saying, i panni sporchi si lavano in casa (dirty laundry must be washed at home) implies the extension of the concept of family beyond the domestic walls, for friends soon become family members in the story.
The two-act play presents a hodgepodge of topics and languages. The importance of the family (in which the father is the depositary of unique values and eternal principles and is also the Father praised in the end of the story) and the centrality of religion are developed alongside an intimate linguistic code shared by the characters and representative of their status as people in between cultures. The holiness of the family is already embedded in the names of the main characters: Giuseppe, Maria, Teresa, Santina and Rita who have to protect their honor, threatened by a group of gossipmongers. The dark side of the family’s life in Canada is represented by Ercole’s betrayal of Peppino’s daughter, Teresa, and by his other daughter’s marriage to a mangiachecca, i.e., a non-Italian (based on perceived culinary habits different from those of the «true» Italians, «mangiacake» is a derogatory term linked to a broader ethnophaulism against non-Italians). Peppino’s reluctant but steady adoption of Italiese reveals an unconscious process of adaptation that eventually leads to his acceptance of the mangiachecca as his son-in-law and his ability to forgive Ercole’s betrayal of Teresa. The family’s honor and respectability are restored by the pious daughter, the nun Santina, and the canny wife Filomena within an economy of traditional gender roles.
Iuele-Colilli and Sansalone bridge the personal stories of the immigrants with history at large, and the genuine naïveté of the immigrant past with their mature scholarly awareness of the present. In these two plays, they speak with the academic awareness of two experts of the Italian-Canadian experience and contemporary Italian theater, and at the same time give voice to their personal experiences as the daughter and granddaughter of Italian immigrants. The playwrights seem to build their plays on the example of the skits and shows performed in vaudeville theaters during the first half of the twentieth century. However, their characters appear to be emptied of the great charisma belonging to the characters of the early macchiettisti such as De Rosalia and Migliaccio, to name a few in the Italian-American context. As a consequence, the ethnic humor at the center of these two plays seems to be guaranteed only by a limited number of comic monologues, malapropisms, and double entendres rather than complex characters and a subtle articulation of the plot.
The lively irony, simple organization of the plots, and straightforward language would make the two pieces a valuable tool for teaching Italian in secondary schools or at the college level. At the same time, the insistence on specific topics (the centrality of the family, for example) could seem trite and stereotyped to those with greater familiarity with the academic fields of Italian-American and Italian-Canadian Studies, making the plays better geared for entertaining teaching tools than resources for academic research.
The simplicity of the language and the witty use of the common idiom spotted with Italiese make the two works enjoyable to all audiences interested in linguistic hybridity. In this sense, both texts could be complemented by and contextualized through the reading of other works addressing related issues, such as the volume Anna De Fina and Franca Bizzoni (eds.), Italiano e Italiani fuori d’Italia, Perugia, Guerra Edizioni, 2003.
Marino Forlino (Rutgers University)