In the early 1850's there were thousands of children wandering the streets and back alleys of New York city. They were penniless, homeless, and hungry. The newspapers referred to them as "street Arabs" because of their wandering ways. In 1853, Charles Loring Brace, a minister, founded The Children's Aid Society. The organization's purpose was to gather up these children and take them by train to the mid-west where it was hoped, they would be taken into homes and treated as family. Over 100,000 children were sent between 1854 and 1930 to rural homes where many were simply seen as a source of cheap labor. Others, however, were taken in by loving and caring couples who raised the children as their own. My wife Mary's grandfather and uncle were two of the fortunate "orphan train" children who found new homes in Eastern Iowa.
Yesterday, Mary and I and our granddaughter, Kaylyn, 16, went to a performance of "Orphan Train" that has been created by composer Doug Katsaros, librettist L.E. McCullough, and lyricist Michael Barry Greer. This poignant piece of musical theatre is being performed by the New York State Theatre Institute under the direction of Patricia Birch. The cast was a fine mixture of young and old with wonderful singing voices. The cast moves on and off a stage through images projected on a screen behind them that depicts trains, farms, and other settings. It all works quite well together, the music, lyrics, set, and costumes but it is the power of the story itself that makes this an unforgettable afternoon at the theatre. Five "orphans" are followed in their journey from boarding the train in New York to being "placed" in their new homes and the consequences of that placement. The play honestly depicts the sorrow and even horror that some of the children experienced as well as those for whom this journey was the beginning of healthy and fruitful lives.
There is a scene, based on fact, when the children disembark from the train in a small mid-western town. They each are presented to a small gathering of town folk and then the children simply stand waiting to see if they will be chosen or left behind. The director allows the silence to build as the intensity and awkwardness of the situation is felt by the audience. It is a powerful moment that allowed me to truly enter into the emotion of the story. The play ends with a stark reminder that thousands of "surplus" and "unwanted" children still exist. A photographic display of some of these children filled the lobby and information was available regarding foster care and adoption.
As I sat in the theatre I thought about how Mary and Kaylyn were experiencing a part of their family history in such a vivid way. And I wondered, were there others in the audience for this production who are related to the original orphan train children?