Mary Lou Sanelli remembers eating sausages for lunch when the other kids had peanut butter and jam sandwiches. She had to learn to put away her high heels as an adult when she moved to the Birkenstock-shod town of Port Townsend; she toned down her animated hand gestures and loud voice.
“I always felt different,” she said. Sanelli was born in New York’s Little Italy to immigrants who fled Italy after WWII.
That feeling of “differentness” is one she shares with many immigrants and first-generation hyphenated-Americans. Sanelli, a poet and dancer, has put her experience into words, both with the book of poems, “The Immigrant’s Table,” and a companion staged reading.
Sanelli presents “The Immigrant’s Table” Jan. 28 at the Jewel Box Theatre in Poulsbo, as a fund-raising event for the theater.
The staged reading features Sanelli as herself and Seattle actress Jackie Leone as her mother. The presentation opens with Leone confiding to the audience that her daughter is a writer and that she has written a book. While proud of her daughter, she is “disgrazia” that the book reveals family secrets. Some of those family secrets are recipes, as the book includes a page of recipes for every page of poems.
In a recent phone interview from her condo home in Seattle’s Belltown, Sanelli confessed she didn’t inherit the Italian gene for cooking.
“I don’t cook,” she said. “That skipped a generation.”
Sanelli said she wrote the book in 2003 because “you have to know your history and comprehend your past before you can move beyond it. A writer has to go home to make whole her work. People are from a particular place, a somewhere that stays a part of them no matter where they end up.”
As with many cultures, Sanelli said food plays a central role in Italian family life. The reading is set in her mother’s kitchen, complete with real food. Sanelli walks the stage and recites her poems; Leone cooks and comments, adding spice to each activity. Talk about dinner theater.
Poet Madeline DeFrees said of the book: “In this collection (she) brings poems out of the ivory tower, straight to the family dinner table. No fast-food substitutes here, as the poet recreates a culture in which food preparation is a cherished ritual. Sanelli’s clear-eyed, yet loving, awareness of family members’ foibles, including her own, provides the reader with a menu that nourishes both body and spirit, a gourmet treat for the imagination.”
“It’s a staged reading, but it’s way beyond the average reading,” Sanelli said. “It has a lot of theatrics involved. I’ve been on stage all my life — it just felt natural to get out from behind the podium and make it a full body experience.”
As a writer Sanelli has published six books of poetry and has written numerous columns for magazines and newspapers. Her commentaries have aired on several public radio stations and she is a regular contributor to Weekday on KUOW. She has a new book coming out next month. She has been a featured poet at the Jewel Box Theatre’s monthly poetry reading.
She is also a dancer, and ran a studio in Port Townsend — where she also has a home — for many years. She is currently training as a dancer with several choreographers and studios in Seattle.
Sanelli paired up with Leone after Leone saw a presentation and approached the author afterward.
“She said I needed to have a real Italian playing the mother,” Sanelli recalled.
Leone fits the part perfectly. She is a first-generation Italian-American, born and raised in the Bronx. Unlike Sanelli, she retained her Italian accent.
“She embodies my mother to the point that it’s scary,” Sanelli said. “She’s the kind of Italian I didn’t grow up to be.”
Leone has a theatrical background, having attended the University of Bridgeport where she majored in English, Speech and Theater. She has said she was born into a life of drama — “raised in a large, immigrant Sicilian family, everyday life was a theatrical comedy and tragedy.”
In her day job she is a real estate agent in Seattle.
The duo has presented “The Immigrant’s Table” at a wide range of venues since 2003, including corporate events, theaters, writing conferences, festivals and colleges as well as in private homes, or “salons.”
Reviewers have called it “radiant and magical,” “a wonderful experience,” and “a marvelous sharing of memory.”
Event coordinator Marilyn Miller said former Jewel Box Artistic Director David Speck knew Sanelli as a fellow Port Townsend resident, and recommended the performance as a fund raiser.
The theater is five years old and in need of upgrades, Miller said, including better lighting and sound equipment, improved backdrops and general refurbishment. The last major upgrade to the theater happened in 2005 when real theater-style seats were installed.
Miller is no stranger to Sanelli’s presentation — in fact she’s seen it twice.
“It’s a wonderful story,” she said. “Like ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ you don’t have to be Greek (or Italian) to relate to the story.”
After whetting the audience’s appetite with samples of Italian cuisine prepared on the stage and shared, the evening concludes with Italian finger foods and wine. The food is catered by the North Kitsap High School Culinary Arts program, with wine chosen to complement the food.
“The Immigrant’s Table” will be performed at 4 p.m. on Jan. 28 at The Jewel Box Theatre, 225 Iverson St., Poulsbo.
Tickets, which include food and wine, are $25, advance purchase required. To reserve tickets call (360) 779-9688 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.