Garden of Inspiration

Going Green with Radical Evolution and The Movement Theatre Company

With temperatures approaching 90 degrees on Saturday August 1, I emerged from a regrettable, yet nostalgic, un-air-conditioned 6 Train onto 116th street. Behind me, a street fair stretched beyond Lexington, while music drifted down the block from La Marqueta under the tracks on Park. There lays the satisfying, easy, authentic chaos of Spanish Harlem and The Movement Theatre Company and Radical Evolution’s pop up performance Go Green at the Urban Garden Center.

The Urban Garden Center is a 20,000 square feet city-block slice of solace tucked under the intermittent metrical rumble of the Metro North rail tracks. Between the fences and under the tracks lays a carefully curated maze of retail, and reclaimed furniture. Moving north towards 117th Street, I passed shelves of lacquered pottery, rows of furniture, and of course seedlings and potted plants. To my extreme delight, there was a chicken coop with some pretty fancy fowl. I can imagine a theatre-maker’s delight when coming across this location for the first time. It is a functional garden center and yet somehow evokes the type of “venue” a hip Brooklynite might scope out for their wedding—a notion capitalized on and well illustrated by performance poet Eboni Hogan in her piece presented in Go Green.

Upon entering, a jazz trio greeted me from a makeshift stage near the entrance. This set the perfect tone for the audience to pass into this delightful ecosystem where form riffed effortlessly with function. My instructions were to wander the space. I passed by several tables of handmade jewelry and accessories by local artists, a rack of thrift store clothing, and a trio of beautiful, tough-looking women dressed in black lounging on lawn furniture. I couldn’t tell if this was a green room or just a prime location for a collection of comfortable looking chairs. Later, I found out that the women were dancers for a moving and effective piece on climate change from Ebony Noelle Golden of Betty’s Daughter Arts Collaborative.

three women performing together
Performers Vesta Learns, Audrey Hailes, and Comfort Katchy perform in Ebony Noelle Golden’s “234234234: 125th & FREEdom” Photo by Diomargy Nuñez.
Eboni Hogan and Amanda Finch perform at Go Green: Pop Up! Photo by Diomargy Nuñez.

Unlike any sterile gallery, black box, or dusty lower Manhattan venue, Go Green had the rough-hewn warm community spirit of a potluck picnic. There were an abundance of hugs and warm greetings as company members greeted friends and guests. In between the two sets of performances, artists chatted with the audience in the greenhouse over roast pork and cheddar cornbread. The performances themselves were set in promenade and covered topics of climate change, veganism, sense memory, and love and loss through dance, Butoh, poetry, and prose. The garden setting evoked growth, rebirth, death, and release. Every piece had elements of ritual, which provided a surprisingly coincidental through line. “Dirt” was convincingly ingested several times—effective enough for me to pick up some and inspect it for cookie mix.

In the shadow of much larger institutions, I find it extremely encouraging that young companies are stepping up to not only meet aesthetic challenges, but also ecological and financial ones.

a woman performing inside a caged environment
Sonia Villani performs in the collaboratively created piece by Rebecca Martinez, Sonia Villani, and Beto O´Byrne. Photo by Diomargy Nuñez.

At their best, the pieces took on and used the texture of the venue with meaningful results. For example, the shadows of birds passing behind the greenhouse aligning with a dancer’s raised arms, the rumble of the train lending rich sound design where none was otherwise present, and the bright afternoon light illuminating sweat, eyelashes, and water droplets that spilled from hanging vessels down onto the dancers.  These beautiful yet simple images evoked summer in New York in a way that a grizzled native might not pause long enough to see anymore.  As with anything site specific, there was also the startled attention of the regular shoppers who were trying to match a pot to a throw pillow as a group passed by in tow behind a waving white flag to the tune of a saxophone dirge. The daily operations of the Garden Center kept attention divided in an amusing way, while reinforcing the uniqueness of the setting and the special authenticity of the performances.

a woman performing in front of flowers
Raquel Almazan performs in her movement piece utilizing Butoh dance traditions. Photo by Diomargy Nuñez.

In a city like New York, Go Green was refreshingly unpretentious. What it seemingly lacked in technical savvy, it made up for in the earnestness of the performances and the unique beauty of the found venue. Even as someone who finds sanctuary in the typical downtown theatre experience, I enjoyed how these two companies put something together that was the exact opposite. The afternoon was playful, bright, and satisfying—touching on the ambitious missions of Radical Evolution and The Movement Theatre Company. Retrospectively, I can see the tangible threads of community engagement: this was no ordinary afternoon at the Garden Center. I remember the faces of the culturally diverse avant-garde artists I saw perform. The Garden Center itself is a living reminder of what we seek to preserve when we talk about sustainability in our art and our lives. Even with the overlapping themes of sustainability, community engagement, and diversity, the event felt organic—pun intended. The producer in me often struggles with balancing the egregiously unprofitable input/output of self-produced work, but I was pleasantly surprised and at ease with Go Green. It definitely asked me to ponder a model in which the one-off experience is a satisfying enough takeaway to warrant investment.

As I headed back to the 6 Train, I vowed to revisit the Urban Garden Center and to do some actual urban gardening one day. I posed this thought to Radical Evolution Artistic Director, and fellow Brooklynite Meropi Peponides before I left. We both agreed that another trip up to Harlem would be worth it “for the vibe.” In the shadow of much larger institutions, I find it extremely encouraging that young companies are stepping up to not only meet aesthetic challenges, but also ecological and financial ones in ways that do not resemble the commonly perceived theatre ecology. They are meeting the challenges meted out to our generation of makers in ways that capitalize on what they already have in abundance: passion, stories, and community.

a group of people walking away from a burning plant
Photo by Diomargy Nuñez.

 

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