Much as it horrifies us, the forcible separation of refugee families at our nation’s southern border is only the most recent instance of a long and terrible legacy. This past summer, New Paltz High School students active in the Drama Club undertook a project to piece together a multimedia stagework that follows the thread of abusive adoption practices in America over more than a century. Drawing on their research, they tell the individual stories of a sampling of the children sent West to uncertain fates on “orphan trains” or literally stolen from poor single mothers and sold to wealthy adoptive parents by Georgia Tann’s adoption-mill operation in Tennessee.
The Drama Club’s fall 2020 production is titled The Journey to Home. It’s the first time since Shades of War in 2012 that the student group has mounted an original piece instead of an already-written play. Club advisor Nancy Owen came up with the concept based on reading she had done about the orphan trains, a campaign initiated by the Children’s Aid Society to relocate homeless, abandoned and runaway children from Eastern cities to foster homes in rural areas. Some 200,000 children were shipped out on the trains between 1854 and 1929; “Only about 60 percent of them were really orphans,” Owen notes. Sometimes the youngsters found good homes, but many of the stories don’t have happy endings. Some of the parents eager to adopt were simply looking for slave labor for their farms, or worse. Siblings were often split up, names changed, communications with birth families squelched.
Seeking a play script on the subject that would be appropriate for a secondary school-level production, Owen found nothing that satisfied her standards. So she decided that it “might be nice if the kids did some of the writing.” She organized a Drama Club meeting near the end of the 2018/19 school year to seek volunteers to do an independent research and writing project. The students didn’t let her down. “We met six times over the summer,” she relates. Owen proudly reports that one student actress, auditioning for the role of a girl named Sofia Kominsky who was placed with a German-speaking adoptive mother, actually spent time over the summer with a local German family to learn to speak with the right accent.
Act One of The Journey to Home consists mainly of vignettes based on the accounts of adults who had been fostered out as children through the orphan train program. Their stories often incorporate the survivors’ efforts to reconnect with relatives who’d been forced by poverty to give them up, or the brothers or sisters from whom they’d been separated at whistlestop “auctions” where orphans were paraded like cattle, with prospective parents prodding them or inspecting their teeth.
According to one of the student playwrights, sophomore Catarina Morgiewicz, Sofia Kominsky found a happy placement at first, but her first adoptive mother died. The girl was “about to go back onto the train” when a local clergyman suggested that she might make a good companion for “a lonely widow who only spoke German.” This replacement foster mother proved a poor match: an ill-tempered woman who often hit Sofia. “But the neighbors were good to her. One of them made her an Easter outfit. Another one got her a job.” Morgiewicz expresses admiration for the way the young woman transcended her hardships: “I liked how she turned out in the end. She liked to care for people, even after all she went through.”
Several of the students volunteered not only to research these memoirs and write them up in play format, but also to portray the children’s older selves onstage. In the vignette that he dramatized, junior Mark LaBorde plays an orphan named Stanley Cornell, who at the age of 7 or 8 rode the train with his little brother Victor. “I am him in the future talking about his past,” LaBorde explains. “Their dad was a World War I veteran with PTSD who couldn’t take care of them. Their mom died of tuberculosis. They didn’t get adopted until the train made its 13th stop, in Texas.”
Senior and Drama Club president Keaton Hemminger composed a dialogue between two social workers of different generations, used as a transition point in the play to illustrate the shift in American attitudes about adoption practices that occurred at the end of the orphan train era. Owen herself wrote much of the connective material, including an interview-format piece for Act Two that unfolds the shocking tale of Georgia Tann, the politically well-connected “baby thief” who abducted an estimated 5,000 children for black-market adoptions between 1924 and her death in 1950. Projections of slides and video clips onto a scrim also serve to set the play’s historical context. Musical interludes in The Journey to Home include an adapted version of the gospel hymn “This Train Is Bound for Glory,” a contemporary song called “The Orphan Train Traveler” and the traditional song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” arranged in four-part harmony by junior Jessica Dugatkin.
The final scene of the play closes the historical circle by addressing the controversy over the treatment of families seeking refuge at the US border today, with children put in cages and their parents kept ignorant of their whereabouts. Owen’s stylized treatment uses choreography and parallel dialogue between two groups of sign-wielding protestors to express popular sentiments about current immigration policies, pro and con. “You present the sides. That’s how you start a conversation,” she says.
The Journey to Home will be performed in the New Paltz High School auditorium at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, October 24 to 26. Tickets will be sold at the door only, for $10 general admission, $8 for students and seniors.