I am a true believer in the power of theatre to transform communities. This is why I work with Arts After Hours in Lynn, MA. Arts After Hours is dedicated to revitalizing and changing the economy of Lynn–a city mired in years of economic stagnation.
Another theatre company, New Brooklyn Theater, that also believes in this transformational power recently came to my attention. New Brooklyn Theater, based in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, produced a site specific production of Albee’s “The Death of Bessie Smith” to start the New Year. The company is performing the play in the Interfaith Medical Center, in order to bring greater attention to the dire financial straits in which the hospital finds itself. The hospital, which serves the lower income residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant, had to file for bankruptcy last year, and has been struggling to remain open ever since. If Interfaith closes its doors for good, it will remove one of the primary centers of medical care for a community that may not be able to go elsewhere.
It is under these circumstances that New Brooklyn Theater is staging “The Death of Bessie Smith,” a play that takes place in a hospital.
The company had instant success in bringing attention to Interfaith’s plight. The New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/09/theater/edward-albees-bessie-smith-at-interfaith-medical-center.html?_r=0) published a story about New Brooklyn Theater’s efforts on behalf of the hospital before the show opened. And the company also started a conversation with New York’s public advocate, Letitia James. It looked like New Brooklyn Theater was going to have a well-publicized two weekend run on behalf of Interfaith.
And then something truly remarkable happened. The show, and as a result Interfaith, received more attention than New Brooklyn Theater expected, and as a result the run for “The Death of Bessie Smith” was extended. The show is now running in Interfaith Medical Center until the state shutters the hospital for good, or until the funding the hospital desperately needs (and deserves) is provided by the state. The conversation and the reality of the situation for Interfaith were changed, transformed, in part because of a political act of theatrical expression.
I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with New Brooklyn Theater’s Artistic Director, Jonathan Solari, about the state of the hospital, he indicated the gears of government were in motion at the top levels of the state. According to Mr. Solari, Governor Cuomo is now actively involved in a conversation about funding Interfaith.
This change in the conversation, the change in the awareness of Interfaith’s financial situation, this is why I am a theatre artist. A community, and a neglected hospital, are on the verge of an important transformation, all because a theatre company saw an under-reported problem and decided to do something about it. The optimist in me truly believes that change is coming for Interfaith. This change is in part attributable to the work and advocacy in which New Brooklyn Theater engaged.
If the New York state government is able to pull together the necessary funding for Interfaith, then a positive change is just around the corner for the residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant. A change that is possible, in part, thanks to the transformational power of theatre.