A play about the cacophony of Brooklyn, staged in its midst
The Brooklyn Museum set up a stage in their front atrium last night for a staged reading of Nelson George’s new play, Our BK.
It wasn't much more than a platform raised only a couple of feet from the ground, with a bench and three microphones. The backdrop was just a window—on Brooklyn.
On the other side of the glass atrium wall during the reading, a mother pushed a baby carriage while her son played with their pet terrier; a group of black kids skateboarded around and did tricks on their bicycles; two men sparred in some form of mixed martial arts; a newly married Jewish couple took wedding photos on the metal veranda.
Nelson George could have found the inspiration for his characters right outside. In Our BK, George puts together stories of new and old Brooklyn, narratives showing a borough that has changed, is changing, and will continue to change. Loosely based on Thornton Wilder's Our Town, this play is the first to be produced by a new theater company he's founded specifically to tell stories about Brooklyn.
“I’m a collector of stories,” he said after the play was done. “People tell me stuff and I write it down when I get home, so almost every piece you heard tonight is based on a real story that someone told me.
"I’ve seen Brooklyn change three or four times, so it’s like, 'Oh look, gentrification.' Change is going on in Brooklyn now, and in 20 years, there’ll be another change. The dialogues across class, race, neighborhood is the dialogue of Brooklyn. That’s where the stories are. ”
The Brooklyn Museum was a perfect venue for the play, sitting as it does at the intersection of Washington Avenue and Eastern Parkway—a meeting point for Prospect Heights, Crown Heights, and Lefferts Gardens.
The Parkway is not just an artery through east Brooklyn but a line of demarcation around which cultural enclaves have formed: ten blocks from the Museum, the Parkway splits Crown Heights in two, geographically and culturally—black on one side and Jewish on the other. Meanwhile, directly behind the Museum is Lefferts Gardens (or Prospect Lefferts Gardens, the "Prospect" appending largely thanks to real estate speculators, who have tapped the area for gentrification). It is a largely West Indian neighborhood—there are at least ten places to buy roti, and barber shops and hair salons open at all hours of the night—but there's also been an influx of young white residents, either cast-offs from pricier Park Slope or young artists looking for a cheaper place to live. Just northwest of the museum is Grand Army Plaza, which has always been prosperous but now is among the most exclusive addresses in the borough.
George's new company is called The Brooklyn International Theater Company, and he started it with artist and Brooklyn-enthusiast (and older brother to Russell Simmons) Danny Simmons; filmmaker, author and artist Alix Lambert; and the Brooklyn-born actress Annabella Sciorra.
Sciorra plays the part of Angel in the play, an obnoxious, gum-smacking, unsentimental daughter of Brooklyn in beige pants, a Do The Right Thing T-shirt and gold hoop earrings. She is a kind of wise-cracking Virgil for the play, hearing the stories of each of the characters in turn and reacting with us, in character: rolling her eyes or subtly mocking the others as they spoke. She slipped into character right away.
"Annabella’s name is pronounced SHE-OR-A!” she called out to the young education director who had just introduced the play.
First up was Lawrence—a recent transplant to Brooklyn. He'd bought a brownstone in a “changing” neighborhood.
“All I needed to do was wait it out,” he said of his decision to move to an area that hadn’t completed a full gentrification cycle—evidenced by a drug den down the street (which, he related, eventually turned into a gourmet cheese shop) and harassment by "thugs" that left him paralyzed with fear.
“Every African American face was the face of my attacker,” he said.
Another character, Alfred, is a Russian Jew whose grandparents lived in a tenement in Brownsville.
“Back then Brownsville was Jewish," he said. "People talk about the Lower East Side, but there were not many places that had the amount of synagogues as Brownsville.
"I don’t know now, but back then Brooklyn was a tribal place, and you crossed over to another neighborhood at your own peril. And it wasn’t just a black against white thing; sometimes it was, but going into Bensonhurst or Sheepshead Bay could be as treacherous to me as going to East New York.”
There's also ex-Manhattanite Faith (played by Alix Lambert) who has moved to Brooklyn with her African boyfriend, where the couple is confronted with sneers from black women; and Richard Johnson Brown, a man who leaves Brooklyn for North Carolina after having seen too many of his friends die from shootings, stabbings, or AIDS.
Angel was the final voice of the play, and of the borough.
“Wait, wait: raise your hand if you know skelly. If you don’t know skelly, you don’t know Brooklyn!” she yelled. She goes on to explain that skelly is a game that kids used to play in the streets of Brooklyn—played with bottle caps on a game-board drawn on the asphalt.
After the performance. the museum set out small Skelly boards, drawn on cardboard. Sciorra chatted with a woman in the front row.
“Hi Cora…. Wait, that’s your granddaughter? You got a granddaughter?!”
The split between the Brooklyn onstage and the Brooklyn right outside seemed to have been blurring. A man reminisced about playing skelly in his old neighborhood, proudly rallying how he’d won a skelly battle with a kid from a different neighborhood.
“You know, he was the man on his side of town and I had to teach him a lesson for talking garbage on my home turf.”