Forging a self that balances old and new, us and them

November 02, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

WASHINGTON -- We come from a long line of dead people. Malachy McCourt says this at the end of "A Couple of Blaguards," the two-man stage show based on his memoir and his famous brother Frank's. It's supposed to be about the Irish experience, but of course there are pieces of every ethnic minority arriving in America, reaching out for an identity and wondering: Whose identity, exactly? My own, and my people's, or something off the new-model assembly line?

"I want to assimilate," McCourt says shortly after arriving in New York from Limerick, Ireland. He says this mockingly, the way one says, "I want a cup of tea, if you have a moment."

And that's the beauty of the thing: America invites us to blend in, and offers us new identities as casually as a new line of fashion, or a fresh drink. But it comes at a cost. We start to slough off and then forget all the history that's preceded us, the long line of dead people from whom we're descended, with their brogues and their fashions and their funny belief systems that formed our original selves.

"A Couple of Blaguards" reminds us where we came from, and what we succeeded in shaking off, and what we didn't. And what each of us, Irish or otherwise, gained and lost in that process.

This being Election Day in Baltimore, the theme hits home -- and not only because of the roots of a fellow named O'Malley, expected to become the next mayor. Elections are one of those times when we pick a new set of community leaders and, in the course of the long campaign season, argue across backyard alleys and offices, and sometimes choose up sides based on ethnic pride, and ultimately measure how well the melting pot is working out.

We take the best from each other's differences, because that's what the country's all about. Otherwise, why did this long line of dead people, who got us here, work so hard to leave behind the old places? On the other hand, how do we hold onto the dear traces of the things that made them unique?

"A Couple of Blaguards" recalls what it was like in one of the old places, Ireland, and what it was like when some of the Irish got here. It's the stage version of two lovely memoirs: Malachy McCourt's "A Monk Swimming," and his brother Frank's more celebrated "Angela's Ashes."

It's also a look at the small craziness in the corners of every group. This is the McCourts' wink at the memory of pain. It's a laugh in the face of dogma driven relentlessly, and exasperatingly, into children's skulls: the fire-and-brimstone priest, for example, ranting at a roomful of awed, potentially wayward schoolboys how they are "doomed to hell for all eternity" -- but, in the next breath, cooing, "God loves you."

Or the priest reviewing the seven deadly sins -- "What about lust, Father?" "Well, we won't dwell on that." -- and warning those with wayward hands that they're in danger of winding up "in the Lust Department of the lunatic asylum."

(The Catholics, of course, have no monopoly on intransigence in the name of religious fervor. I can recall, from a distance of more than 40 years, the Hebrew school teacher innocently asked about which era came first, dinosaurs or Adam and Eve -- and a hand frighteningly slammed on a desk, the resounding signal that a taboo subject involving Faith vs. Science had been violated, and the topic was never to be broached in his classroom again.)

Such narrowness draws a smile -- in retrospect. The past was treacherous, but it's OK to talk openly about it now because we survived it, and thus claim a kind of victory over it. Our own people make us crazy, and so do those strangers among us -- whom we nonetheless wish to join, even though they whisper such nasty things about us, and about the long line of dead people we come from.

It's part of the initiation process America performs on every ethnic minority wishing to sign on for the duration. We beat you up for a while, and see if you can take it, and gradually comes the blending of families.

"Oh, the suffering," Malachy McCourt cries. He says this with tongue inserted into cheek, knowing the puddle of self-pity in which every ethnic minority stops to bathe. But he also knows there's truth behind the chuckle.

"A Couple of Blaguards" reminds us, wherever we may have hidden ourselves from such pain -- inflicted by our own people, or by others -- it's safe to come out now and share a laugh about it.

In Baltimore, on the day we go to the polls, this is worth remembering. We're at our best finding common ground. But we also triumph when we acknowledge our cultural differences -- and celebrate the differences, knowing that they enrich us when we catch a glimpse of them and care enough to find out where they came from, because they're the history that makes our neighbors who they are, and our community what it is.

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