Show Review: Layer the Walls

Layer The Walls

By Amy Wall Lerman

Ages: 7+

If rats could live forever, oh the tales they would tell.  And what tales they do tell in the production of Layer the Walls at the 14th Street YMCA on Manhattan’s east side.

The show opens with two rats in a tenement building on the lower east side of New York City.  They tell us stories of the immigrants who lived in one particular apartment according to the scraps of wallpaper each family left behind.

Apparently the Tenement Museum, located at 97 Orchard Street, discovered that the former tenement building they housed themselves in had 20 layers of wallpaper and 40 coats of paint – each resident that lived in the building laying claim to their space in a new world.

If you’ve never visited the museum, you should.  It is all about us.  You, me, your ancestors and how they got here.  Many arrived in New York, settling in the city for a time.  Housed in apartments no bigger than today’s walk in closet (or some Manhattan studios).  300 Square feet of the American dream without heat or running water. But this was better, for most, than what they’d left behind in their homelands.

Layer the Walls, directed by Elise Thorn, is a lovely way to introduce an audience to the stories of our American heritage because, afterall, you are only truly American if you were here before the Europeans – and that’s not the case for most of us.  All of our stories begin with upheaval and resettlement.

The stars of the show are also its co-creators, Liz Parker and Rachel Sullivan magnificently act and

Layer the Walls

portray the stories of 3 immigrant families in unique ways (and, by the way, they also play the part of the tenement rats telling the stories).  The Irish family in the 1870’s is told by way of puppets.  Despite their inanimate faces, their story is rich with feeling.  That could have been my ancestors who settled in New York at about that time.

The Italian immigrant brothers come next.  Parker and Sullivan tell the stories of Marcos and Lorenzo through masks that, at first, appear a little creepy.  Their eyes don’t move – they stare as if at nothing, but again, their story is alive, the emotion of their plight, palpable.  Both the puppets and the masks were designed by Taiwanese artist, Spica Wobbe.

Finally we learn about two Jewish girls whose families fled the pogroms of Russia.  Just 15 years old, they either face marriage or slave labor sewing clothing in a factory in unsafe conditions.  In New York they march for safer working conditions on the city streets, which garnered attention but did not lead to significant change.  That didn’t happen until the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire which killed 146 workers on March 25, 1911.

Despite the hardship, prejudice, and poverty, each family chooses to stick it out.  Each believing that life is still better living in a world of hope than perishing without it.  Each family has fled a life of famine, unemployment, or genocide.  These are our grandparents and great-grandparents.  They are also immigrants of our own generation.

In these highly charged political times, it’s good to remember that we all have a similar story – whether from another century or from today.  And, yes, there were always people throughout the years who didn’t want any more people to settle here.  That’s not a new problem.

Even though this show predates current politics, it stands as a reminder that immigration is our heritage.  No one wants to leave their home unless they have to.  It should also remind us that where we go may not be any kinder to us than what we left behind, but it’s the hope for something better, that keeps us moving forward.  Isn’t that why we’re all here in the first place?

Now the bad news…the show was at the YMCA for a limited engagement, but watch for it to reappear soon at another New York City venue.  Bring your children!

Layer the Walls was developed in conjunction with New York City’s New Victory Theater and supported by The Jim Henson Foundation.


Amy Wall Lerman is a television news producer, author, and later mom to an 11 year old boy.  She lives in West Orange, NJ with her husband, son, and “100 percent purebred mutt,” Charlie.


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