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Working Theater's ambitious five-play series connects disparate NYC communities
Adam Kraar's new play Alternating Currents is set in a real housing complex in Flushing, Queens called Electchester. It's full of vibrant details only someone familiar with the development would know, such as references to the red-tailed hawks that reside on one of the rooftops.
Kraar, who lives in Brooklyn, had never even heard of Electchester until Working Theater commissioned him to write this show for its Five Boroughs/One City initiative: five plays inspired by five different blue-collar communities, one in each NYC borough. Alternating Currents is the third work in the series, and is touring to venues throughout the Big Apple through May 26.
"We're crazy!" quips Mark Plesent, the producing artistic director of the 33-year-old company. But it was that "crazy" ambition that attracted Kraar to the project. "One of the many things that appealed to me was this was going to be a pretty fresh way of creating a piece that would connect with and draw an audience outside of Manhattan," he says. "One of the big things that I've been striving to do is to try to make theatre for people who don't regularly go to theatre, try to infect new people with the love of theatre."
Kraar's goal jibes with Working Theater's mission to make shows about and accessible to working-class people. Artistic director Tamilla Woodard sees Five Boroughs/One City as a necessary step. Instead of trying to get the target audience to commute to downtown Manhattan for a show, the company is bringing the experience to them. "The play is not the end of it, the play is the middle," she says, noting that Working Theater hosts community conversations during the play's development and after every performance so locals can discuss the neighborhood and how it has changed. "It starts with community engagement, it becomes a play and the play becomes this forum for the community to talk with itself again."
For Alternating Currents, Kraar spent about a year commuting to Electchester, an affordable housing complex created by Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers for its union members. In speaking with the residents, Kraar discovered some delightful factoids (Electchester hosts one of the biggest Christmas tree lighting ceremonies in New York City, for obvious reasons) and some unfortunate realities, such as the tension between Electchester and NYCHA's Pomonok Houses across the street. That conflict forms the main power line of the play. Kraar explains that while Electchester was founded on the ideals of fraternity, unfortunately "sometimes people take care of each other but they forget that the people across the street are part of their community, too."
In addition to providing an entertaining and illuminating performance, the creatives at Working Theater hope to build some bridges between disparate neighborhoods through art by having the participating community members attend all five shows. The residents of Electchester saw the previous Five Boroughs/One City plays, Dan Hoyle's South Bronx-set The Block in 2016 and Ed Cardona Jr.'s Bamboo in Bushwick in 2017, and they'll also see the future ones. So they get to see themselves reflected onstage as well as their peers in other boroughs.
While shepherding the plays from conception to completion, Plesent and Woodard have noticed similar themes emerging from each neighborhood, especially gentrification and displacement. "We're using the word gentrification but it's really about 'I'm losing my community, and I can't find myself in my community,'" says Woodard. "'I used to belong. I feel like a stranger here. I can't afford it anymore. I don't feel safe.' Essentially it's, 'How do I fit into this place now?'"
Another common concern: racial inequity. "We're such a diverse city but we're also incredibly segregated," says Plesent.
In creating these works for the communities and then fostering communal discussions Working Theater hopes to make neighbors become, well, more neighborly. Woodard admits that talking to the strangers next door is "intimidating," but she thinks that "theatre can make it unintimidating, to help us be in a conversation with each other."
Top image: Liba Vaynberg and Robert Arcaro in Alternating Currents. Photo by P. Kevin O'Leary.