We Are All Kin to the Cove Brings Climate-Engaged Community Performance to Queens, New York
We Are All Kin to the Cove is a site-specific, devised piece that explores the relationships between water and humans, produced by the Remote Theater Project (RTP). The performance was generated through a two-and-a-half-week workshop led by Remote Theater Project that investigated the ensemble’s relationship to each other, to water, to the cove at 31st Ave/Vernon Blvd, and to the community of around the cove in the New York City neighborhood of Astoria, Queens. The project is inspired by and in relation to 36.5/A Durational Performance with the Sea by Sarah Cameron Sunde, and both take place at the cove at 31st Ave and Vernon Boulevard. The performance is one in a line of several projects leading up to Sunde’s performance on 14 September, which involved her standing in the water for a full tidal cycle (around twelve or thirteen hours) with no food or breaks. She has performed this in nine locations around the world, and this performance was her final in the series, with satellite performances happening at all the previous locations. Sunde developed 36.5 as a reaction to Hurricane Sandy, a climate disaster that made Sunde acutely aware of water and humankind’s desperate need to act in symbiosis with it. Once the threat of COVID postponed 36.5’s performance in 2020, Sunde, along with Chris Bisram and other community members, started a community group called Kin to Cove where local artists and community members joined together to hang out, clean the cove, and create. This group blossomed into several artistic projects, including We Are All Kin to the Cove.
Although Sunde spoke at the performance of We Are All Kin to the Cove, the project was led and facilitated by college students Chris Bisram and Nina Jakobson and produced by Alex Aron of Remote Theater Project (RTP). Bisram is a lifelong resident of Astoria and met Sunde, his friend and mentor, in 2020 while she was looking for a performer for 36.5. When Sunde approached Aron with an opportunity to assist with some of the community outreach, she was intrigued. As producing artistic director of RTP, which aims to promote cross-cultural dialogue through performance with a global perspective, Aron had been a longstanding admirer of 36.5. After meeting Bisram, Aron was drawn in by their artistic perspective. She brought in Jakobson, one of RTP’s summer interns, as a collaborator. Sarah Shapiro and I, also RTP summer interns, joined the process as a stagehand and production assistant, respectively. Bisram and Jakobson formed the rest of the group by postering the neighborhood, using social media, and recruiting at Long Island City High School and a local community organization called ZONE 126. The full performing ensemble of We Are All Kin to the Cove included Bisram and Jakobson in addition to Desiree Genao, Nicole Ulloa, Megan Masciana, Eryn Peritz, and Alex Aron. Ulloa and Peritz are college students, and Genao, the youngest of the team, will soon be 16. Masciana, a graphic designer who moved to Queens last year, was the final member of the team to join. One day during rehearsal, Masciana was sitting on the beach and inquired what the collective was doing. They invited her to join.
“It’s like a collage, except it is in real life, not on paper. A collection of this group and the community’s thoughts and experiences with the cove.”
The process for We Are All Kin to the Cove was emphasized over the product, which meant that the creative process was filled with exploration of and connection with the cove and the community. The team started with strategies to ground themselves in the cove. They began by connecting with the space and the objects in the space. They worked to give voice to inanimate objects by writing pieces from the objects’ perspectives and creating dance phrases inspired by the objects—exercises that were all present in the final performance. It was also important to the ensemble to focus on their connection with the water; throughout the rehearsal process, they reflected on water’s role in their lives and observed the water at the Cove.
They also generated material by bringing in community members and listening to their stories of the cove, of Queens, and of themselves. Two notable guests were Chief Reggie Dances With Medicine Ceaser and Audrey Dimola. Chief Reggie, Chief of the Mantinicock Tribal Nation, told stories of his ancestors, although he emphasized that the Indigenous people of what is now known as Queens did not view themselves as part of separate tribes; rather, they were labeled as such by the “invaders” in an attempt to create divisions amongst them. He gave a history lesson of the area and shared a philosophical understanding of the cove, the area, and his ancestors’ traditions. Dimola, a lifelong Queens resident and storyteller-performer, shared about her spiritual connection with the water and how it has helped her navigate many of her life’s difficulties. Both of these community members’ voices appeared on the soundscape that constituted the culmination of the piece.
After gathering the generated material, the ensemble pieced together a thirty-five-minute performance, guiding the audience through monologues, dances, and a history of the cove. The event was free and even included a delicious smoothie afterwards. The performance itself was an ephemeral, interdisciplinary mirage. The performers, dressed in all white, assembled themselves along the beach as they alternated between poetic dancing and punctuated monologues. During the performance, I overheard two members of the community speaking. One asked, “What is this?” and the other replied, “It’s like a collage, except it is in real life, not on paper. A collection of this group and the community’s thoughts and experiences with the cove.”
The performance began with a movement phrase and various statements about the Cove such as “Is the water safe?” and “If you think you can come here and see the same thing, then I have nothing left to teach you.” There were several monologues throughout: Masciana delivered one about her experience with the cove and discovering performance and one about the perspective of a dog, “Toy Wolf”; Genao comically represents what it might be like for a squash coming from the grocery store to be thrown into the cove; Ulloa narrated the feelings of the cove in a sarcastic yet compelling tone; and Bisram performed two monologues including concluding monologue about losing his mother and how the water connects them to her. Interspersed between these monologues were movement phrases that evoked various aspects of the cove like waves or searching for items on the beach. Sometimes, monologue and movement occurred together, like when the team stood in V-formation around Peritz as she monologued and repeated a movement phrase in the water with a shell. The performance ended with an audio compilation of the interviews with community members. The ensemble watched the water, backs to the audience, signifying looking to the future of the cove.
In an era of disconnection, artistic projects that pivot to new methods of creativity and communication become more engaged with and more accessible to communities.
The “History” portion of the performance questioned the controversial story of the cove. Its formal name is Hallet’s Cove, but there has been a conscious shift to call it “the cove.” The Hallett family, the primary settlers of Queens, were enmeshed in scandal. In the mid-1600s, the first William Hallet ran away to Astoria. He fell in love with Elizabeth Winthrop who was chased out of Greenwich, Connecticut because she had been betrothed to someone else. Two generations later, the family was murdered: William Hallet III, his wife, and their five children. The murderers were supposedly two people who had been enslaved by Hallet, an Indigenous man named Sam and a Black woman. Archives indicate that they reported the murder and were immediately accused of the crime. Sam was hung, and the Black woman was burned at the stake. In We Are All Kin to the Cove, Bisram and Jakobson prompted audience members to read aloud note cards that contained these historical facts about the Cove. Not only did they discuss the Hallet family, but they also called attention to Big Allis, Con Edison’s big generator and neighbor to the Cove. This generator is a contributing factor to the East River’s pollution. Today, residents of Astoria are still affected by this pollution as well as the historical legacy of the area’s colonization. After sharing all this information, Jakobson and Bisram had to reckon with the history of Queens and its future. They were searching to make sense of these conflicting and disturbing facts, and, ultimately, ended up deciding it’s impossible because “history is written by the victor”—and in this case that means both colonizers and big business.
This performance and overall project highlights the capacity performance has to engage with the public and empower communities to make their own art. Aron addressed this in a conversation with me, saying that it was important to have this initiative led by members of the Astoria community. In an era of disconnection, artistic projects that pivot to new methods of creativity and communication become more engaged with and more accessible to communities.
We Are All Kin to the Cove is just one part of 36. 5’s continuing engagement with the cove. On September 14th, Sunde performed her durational water stand, and she called for anyone who wanted to visit her during the process, and even stand with her for some portion. She also involved Project Ambassadors, people who are knowledgeable about Sunde’s project who could participate and explain the project during her performance. An important part of 36.5 is this commitment to opening as many doors as possible for the community to engage.
We need theatre to help us reconnect with each other and reconnect with the earth. Community engagement, social practice, and a climate focus must be at the forefront of theatre work because theatre is a space to connect and to inspire. Like We Are All Kin to the Cove, this kind of work can fruitfully be inspired by its site and driven by community members. Processes like We Are All Kin to the Cove show that art and beauty can be found everywhere, especially at a little beach on the East River in Astoria, Queens.