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The Vanguard

Oral History-Driven Monologues on the Lower East Side

In 1997, the Metropolitan Playhouse took up residence in the heart of the Lower East Side, on east 4th street between avenues A and B.  Since its inception in 1993, the theatre has been committed to an investigation of the American experience, and from 1997 on specifically focused on the discovery and revival of rarely seen or forgotten American plays. Seasons at the Metropolitan are given a unifying theme, the list of which clearly reflects the company’s focus on American theatrical preoccupations (past season’s themes include: class, work, virtue, and the American Dream).

‘East Side Stories’ is part performance, part oral history project. Since 2003, the Metropolitan has commissioned actors to reach out to Lower East Side residents-of-note and create monologues based on interviews with their chosen subjects.

“Progress” is the focus of the Metropolitan’s current twenty-third season. Fall and winter saw two full-length productions and a dance festival, followed by a third full-length play and the now-playing East Side Stories, part of the sixth annual East Village Theater Festival and also connected to the larger Lower East Side History Month. “East Side Stories” is part performance, part oral history project. Since 2003, the Metropolitan has commissioned actors to reach out to Lower East Side residents-of-note and create monologues based on interviews with their chosen subjects. The initiative is an admirable and active way to engage the local community, not to mention an elegant extension of the Metropolitan’s history-driven mission into the future.

The Vanguard featured an evening of three different verbatim monologues, one of four “East Side Stories” programs (two offerings are collections of one-act plays inspired by the history of the Lower East Side).

The Metropolitan Playhouse stage is an intentionally intimate thrust with sloping audience seating on three sides. I couldn’t tell for sure if my fellow theatregoers were Lower East Side natives, but the Metropolitan makes a point of reaching out to their neighbors, especially the individuals whose stories are being represented onstage, and their family and friends. Certainly there was plenty of enthusiasm and appreciation at moments in the evening—most amusingly around Brigitte Barnett-as-Alex Harsley’s reminiscences about the “bum wine” that used to be a common sight in the area.

Group of people standing in a staircase
Clockwise from top: Jason C. Brown, Lillian Rodriguez, Randy Lee, Brigette Barnett, Tammy McNeill, and Jody Christopherson.

Actor Randy Devin Lee started off the evening by acquainting us with the story of Corlie Ohl, a real estate agent and slightly mystifying choice of interviewee. The piece, “Not to Judge” felt like a click-through someone’s Facebook photo album without the aid of actual pictures, jumping from experience to experience; from parties, to boyfriends, to Ohl’s interior decorating jobs, which eventually landed her in real estate. Bursts of music accented the text. Corlie Ohl’s story did not come off as a celebration of the Lower East Side, or even as a depiction of the neighborhood in particular. Perhaps this was the point?

The subject of real estate is a sensitive and all-encompassing one in this city; it would be fascinating to see the Lower East Side through that lens. In an evening devoted to The Vanguard, this piece didn’t quite fit, but it did get me thinking right off the bat about the “why” of documentary theatre. StoryCorps and The Moth help us realize that the tales of random strangers can be heartbreaking and affecting. When you choose to represent someone’s story, as an actor in front of people, you enter into a different contract with your audience; it’s a relationship with an inherent power dynamic. A theatrical setting gives words a different weight. Something that comes off as funny or interesting in an off-the-cuff, in-person context or during a chat at someone’s kitchen table can quickly feel like a bewildering waste of time.

The initiative is an admirable and active way to engage the local community, not to mention an elegant extension of the Metropolitan’s history-driven mission into the future.

The photographer Alex Harsley opened the 4th Street Photo Gallery in the 1970s. Brigitte Barnett’s monologue, “Negative Processing,” was the second in the program and felt intentional and theatrical from the beginning. The piece was also aided by projected photographs throughout, both of Harsley himself and his work documenting the ups and downs of life on the Lower East Side. Barnett painted a vibrant picture of Harsley in the midst of a riot, holding his camera over his head and blindly taking pictures. In another moment, one that echoed the theatre’s season theme of progress, Barnett-as-Harsley mused on changing technology. “You gotta shake hands with this stuff!” he exclaims, on trying to get along with his laptop computer. The title of the piece comes from Harsley’s consternation over the loss of quality that images undergo on a computer screen. “People don’t know the difference between an expensive photograph and a cheap photograph,” he says.

Actress Jody Christopherson decided to chronicle the life and times of performer/choreographer Clove Galilee for her monologue, titled “Because You Are Good.” Christopherson wrote me in an email that two interviews, recorded with both audio and video, yielded three hours of material to be transcribed. From there,

…I knew there were passages I wanted to include but was not completely sure what arc or overall story I wanted to tell. After arranging and rearranging for about a week, performing different sections, exploring different metaphors, I felt like the piece started to tell me what direction it needed to take. (This process has really been so much about listening, truly.) Eight drafts later I have the script that is currently in performance.

Clove Galilee is the daughter of downtown theatrw giants Ruth Maleczech and Lee Breuer, founding members of the theatre company Mabou Mines. It struck me that while the other two pieces in the program were performed by actors whose race or gender differed from their subjects, Jody Christopherson actually looks almost exactly like Clove Galilee, down to their shared long auburn hair. Christopherson’s portrayal of Galilee, appropriately perhaps, felt more like performance art than what had come before. Christopherson told me that watching footage of Galilee’s choreography and performance work informed the physical choices she made in the monologue. Unlike Alex Harsley’s testimony about the turmoil of the neighborhood, and Corlie Ohl’s career-oriented, ladder climbing attitude, Clove Galilee’s Lower East Side is seen through a child’s eyes and had an almost small town feel. 

As a youngster, Galilee—when she wasn’t performing with her parents—roamed free in the neighborhood, making friends with her neighborhood policeman, who sometimes let her do homework in the ninth precinct. That cop also took her to the nutcracker for the first time and was a friend of the family—Galilee laments the change in policing tactics that have taken “beat cops” away from specific neighborhoods where they would develop relationships with members of the community.

The end of Christopherson’s piece describes Galilee’s relationship with her mother, and her endeavors to honor her legacy—Ruth Maleczech passed away last year—through performance. The actress herself views the creation of “Because You Are Good” as a celebration both of Ruth and of Clove, which she discusses in an article on this site.

The Lower East Side of Manhattan has no shortage of stories or characters. I wasn’t surprised, when I left The Vanguard, by the feeling that I had seen three distinct and unrelated visions of the neighborhood. The juxtaposition of those visions is compelling. I think the Metropolitan has, through this project, an interesting opportunity to examine the ways in which these discrete narratives can interweave. What is the bigger picture? The “East Side Stories” initiative is already an exciting chance for actors to have an authorial hand in what they perform; I would be curious to see the results how the results may differ if the performers worked with each other during the process of creating these pieces to find consistencies or through lines, and allowed that collaboration drive the next curated evening.

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