This Is Our Year

The Understated Inclusivity of The Golden Drum Year

Think back to 2011. Pick a day, any day. What did you do? Did you walk your dog? Pick up your dry cleaning? Visit your aunt? 

Did you even leave your apartment?

If you were poet and playwright Beto O’Byrne, you wrote a play.

What started as an unexpected email exchange with a friend upon moving to New York quickly became a passion project for O’Byrne, who memorialized his first year in the city by penning a new poem each day. The fruits of his labor have been collected and dramatized with the help of multiethnic producing collective Radical Evolution in The Golden Drum Year, which played for eight performances at The Performance Project at University Settlement. 

What started as an unexpected email exchange with a friend upon moving to New York quickly became a passion project for O’Byrne, who memorialized his first year in the city by penning a new poem each day.

In this age of instant gratification, it’s easy to forget yesterday, let alone four years ago. O’Byrne’s play takes us back to 2011, that most turbulent year—a time when the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring played in the background of our New York existence. The narrative O’Byrne and his collaborators have constructed begins in a park overlooking the Hudson River. Snow is falling on Eugene (Allan K. Washington), an unembellished stand-in for O’Byrne, as he ponders his surroundings. Like many new to Gotham, he is full of hope as he looks out over the placid water. He soon gets a job at a grocery store on the Upper West Side, where he works with dancers, veterans, and painters, all of whom are far too qualified to be stocking and bagging. The park, the grocery store, and all subsequent locations are suggested by images projected on three large white panels that flank the stage—the projections combine with the seamless Foley and admirable musicianship of Jonathan Camuzeaux to give texture and clarity to each location on Eugene’s journey.

Man looking at his hand in front of projections of stars
Allan K. Washington in The Golden Drum Year. Photo by Radical Evolution.

Eugene’s next stop is a nearby karaoke bar where, despite despising karaoke, he joins his colleagues after the store closes. There, instead of off-key renditions of Whitesnake or Whitney Houston, we witness the meat of O’Byrne’s poetry via inspired spoken word performances by tough guy security guard Jero (Fernando Gonzalez) and effortlessly elegant store manager Xochi (Zuleyma Geuvara). Eugene is not yet ready to take his turn in the spotlight, but the microphone feels like Chekhov’s gun—it seems only a matter of time before Eugene will truly find his voice.

As winter melts into spring, the events of the play begin to accelerate. Perhaps because O’Byrne has already laid the foundation of his (and, reflexively, Eugene’s) day-to-day, he feels more at liberty to follow the unexpected detours that enliven Eugene’s mundane existence. Among them are a transformative breathing exercise Eugene learns from coworker Jackson, an observed ritual involving of one of the store’s regular customers outside a subway station, and the heartbreaking revelation that Xochi has fallen ill.

Spring gives way to summer, then to fall—a fall in which veteran Jero joins the Occupy movement. One day, Jero takes Eugene and some of their coworkers to Zucotti Park. This awakens something in Eugene—he sees people dancing and raising their voices for revolution, and he is convinced that he must make a change. This is also the last time he sees Xochi before her death—a death that finally inspires him to pick up the mic and deliver a passionate ode to living. Shortly thereafter, he gives his two weeks notice at the store, despite having no other job lined up. Eugene doesn’t care—he has realized in less than a year what takes some a lifetime: it is far better to be happy than “safe.”

The Golden Drum Year is full of these little reminders, these subtle revelations, these everyday epiphanies. It is, after all, the story of a poet’s first year in New York City.  What did you expect? Each time a character spoke I half expected him or her to remind me to call my mother or to look up at the night sky on the way home. Breath is the most prominent leitmotif, as if O’Byrne had written these poems as a means of staying present. For any artist, or person, in New York City, living in the moment is a constant struggle. This play does not suggest a panacea, but does encourage attention to detail. Its language and vignettes are able to take the most quotidian aspects of our existence and say, “Stop. Look. Listen. There be magic here.”

Actor holding a plunger to the hands of another
Allan K. Washington and Fernando Gonzalez in The Golden Drum Year. Photo by Radical Evolution.

Though heavy on multimedia, O’Byrne’s play would have been just as successful with no frills at all. Indeed, the play’s projections toy with the audience’s expectations of theatre in the digital age—the impressionistic tableaus do not call attention to themselves so much as divert it back towards those onstage. The imagery of cash registers and subway platforms, like the cityscape it emulates, is content to hum pleasantly on the periphery. That being said, I must again acknowledge and applaud the masterful Jonathan Camuzeaux, whose talents on a bevy of different instruments (and household items) nearly steal the show. Though O’Byrne’s text can and does stand alone, Camuzeaux’s haunting piano and spirited mandolin add an indispensible mysticism to the proceedings.

Though the final product’s format is more Brighton Beach Memoirs than Def Poetry Jam, The Golden Drum Year appropriately fosters an inclusivity uncommon to much of New York theatre. At the performance I attended, a woman audibly commiserated with Eugene as he tried to ward off nervousness about leaving his job. In the spirit of the piece, Washington briefly broke character to assure her that he appreciated her sentiment. How could he not? He is Eugene, Eugene is O’Byrne, and O’Byrne is one of eight million artists, grocery store clerks, poets, and dreamers that make up our fair city—each with a voice, each wanting to be heard.

In the end, that is the greatest triumph of this play—it invites people in. It says, without flair or folderol, that we are here: in this moment, in this place.

In the end, that is the greatest triumph of this play—it invites people in. It says, without flair or folderol, that we are here: in this moment, in this place. We are here together—whether we know it or not. In the play’s final moments, on the eve of 2012, Eugene stands in the same park as in the first scene. He stands with his friend (Sonia Villani), wearing light up New Year’s Eve glasses and reflecting on the year. “It comes in waves,” he tells her. “Everything.  Love, hate, joy luck, fear, despair,” to which his friend replies, “It is up to us to think of our life as a surfboard and try our best to stay up until we break on the shore.” It’s a tired metaphor, but one that seems apt. One that seems, dare I say, universal. And as Eugene stares out at the Hudson, readying to face the New Year, he breathes.

It’s all he, or any of us, can do.

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