Site-specific free performances slated for June 22
By Samantha Samel
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Brave New World Repertory Theatre is a performing arts company dedicated to all things Brooklyn. Based in Ditmas Park, the organization, which is comprised of Brooklyn-based theatre professionals, is committed to featuring new works by Brooklyn writers, as well as adaptations of classic plays. Its productions take place in unique and historic Brooklyn venues.
This weekend Brave New World will present a free, site-specific performance of Elmer Rice's 1929 Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Street Scene." The play, which takes place entirely on the front stoop of a New York City apartment building, will be performed on the sidewalk and stoop of a tenement on 5th St. (between 8th Ave. and Prospect Park in Park Slope) on June 22 at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Audience members will be seated in the street, which will be closed to traffic for the day.
Claire Beckmen, who founded Brave New World in 2003 and is directing “Street Scene”, told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle that Borough President Marty Markowitz has played a crucial role in enabling her group to perform in such unusual spaces. “He’s been such a champion of our work because he’s a real lover of the arts and also of free events. He really believes that this is a natural way to have a diverse population mingle and learn to live together peacefully and joyfully. Marty and I have always been aligned and on the same page in that way,” said Beckman.
“Street Scene” requires a particularly unique setup. Brave New World’s cast consists of 35 actors (including seven children and a dog), some of them Equity actors. “Just because it’s set on a stoop does not mean it’s a gimmick. It’s going to be a beautiful piece of theater, worthy of any stage,” said Beckman.
But it wasn’t easy for Beckman to secure the rights to this particular stage. She wanted to find the perfect street and a building where people could stick their heads out of windows and sit on the front stoop. Most importantly, Beckman wanted to recreate a typical, lower-middle class tenement that might have existed on the Upper West Side or Harlem in the 1920s.
The challenge was finding a landlord and tenants who would be willing to cooperate. Fortunately, Beckman was in touch with a landlady, Lori Karelas, who encouraged the director to check out her Park Slope properties. After scouting several locations, Beckman was thrilled to find that one of Karelas’s buildings could accommodate her vision.
“Street Scene" will be particularly recognizable to a New York audience; illustrating the daily lives of working class inhabitants of the city, Rice’s play explores domestic, racial and ethnic quarrels. “I set this 1929 Pulitzer Prize-winning play – which was the very first play that anybody had ever seen on Broadway about working class Americans – farther uptown in Harlem, and I’m using a cast predominantly of actors of color. I’m using jazz music and setting the play in the Harlem Renaissance, telling a story that I feel was probably happening up in Harlem as easy as anywhere else,” said Beckman.
“I like to reimagine certain classics that lend themselves to an African American retelling, because that population was underrepresented at the time – stories weren’t being written about them, so we have less of a sense of their history.”
Beckman knew that Langston Hughes, a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote the lyrics for the “Street Scene” opera, and this encouraged her to move forward with her adaptation. “That’s what I felt like gave me valid permission – ironically, the actors cast in the opera are always white. It’s a play about immigrants, mostly, but what I’ve done is replaced the Irish with black,” said Beckman.
“It really works, because race prejudice is an issue discussed at great length in the play. I’ve taken it a step further and raised the stakes because like a lot of classics, it needs a bit of an update to resonate and to be relevant…and the actors are absolutely brilliant.”
While the play has a violent murder scene, there is certainly some comic relief. “It’s a great, great play, said Beckman. “It didn’t win the Pulitzer for nothing.”
The June 22 performances will take place at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. on 5th St. (between 8t h Ave. and Prospect Park in Park Slope). The rain date for the performance is June 23. Tickets are free (no reservations necessary). Limited reserved free seating is available in advance for the elderly and disabled, and limited reserved seating is available with online donations of $75 or more (http://www.bravenewworldrep.org)