Last night Clif and I went to the Franco-American Center at the University of Maine at Orono to see Abby Paige, a terrific performer and writer. She presented her work-in-progress Tous mes cousins / All My Cousins, an “intimate new bilingual play about what it means to be French, to be family, to be Franco-American in French Canada, and to be fed up with Jack Kerouac.”
A very brief history of Franco-Americans in the United States: From the post Civil War era to the 1930s, one-third of French Canada immigrated to the United States, mostly in New England. Impoverished and hungry, they came to work in the factories the region was so famous for. In forty years, towns went from having no French speakers to having anywhere from 25 percent to 60 percent of the population speaking French. Having so many French-speaking Catholics settle in Yankee Protestant towns brought, shall we say, a certain amount of tension. And discrimination. For those of us who are of French Canadian descent—and I am both on my mother’s and father’s side—there is a distinct feeling of not belonging, of not being French Canadian and of not being fully American.
This is an ideal, albeit uncomfortable, place for an artist to be, the rough grain of sand that produces the pearl, as the saying goes. Abby Paige, who was born and raised in Vermont, is of French Canadian descent on her mother’s side. She now lives in New Brunswick, and Tous mes cousins / All My Cousins explores the notion of not being French enough in Canada and perhaps being too French in the United States.
Abby Paige does this brilliantly, with multiple characters and their monologues—herself, a breathless teenager, an uncle, and Jack Kerouac, who both irritates and fascinates her. Abby Paige’s transition from one character to another was seamless, and when she went from being the teenage girl to being the uncle, she was almost unrecognizable. I especially loved the uncle’s monologue, where he told of how he occasionally went to an Italian friend’s home, where spaghetti was served—a real treat as the uncle didn’t get this at home—and where there was a picture of Mussolini in the basement.
We learned from the discussion after the presentation that to many French Canadians, Franco-Americans are failures who deserted their homeland. To my way of thinking, this is a mighty strange way of looking at the situation. After all one third of the population left French Canada because conditions were too miserable for families to thrive. Abby Paige explores this dichotomy in Tous mes cousins / All My Cousins in a scene where she speaks halting French at her son’s bilingual school in Canada and endures the patient but condescending attitude of the teacher.
Tous mes cousins / All My Cousins is an impressive beginning of an exploration of not only identity but also of the history of New England and French Canada. I’m really looking forward to seeing the finished show.