This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

JUDITH WELLER: THE GARMENT WORKER

(photo by twi-ny/ees)

The Garment Worker keeps toiling away at 555 Seventh Avenue Plaza (photo by twi-ny/ees)

555 Seventh Avenue Plaza
Permanent installation
www.publicartfund.org

“Could it be that living through the time of coronavirus will reconfigure the organisation of fashion, fundamentally changing how brands practice their role? I hope it can be so,” Sarah Mower writes in a March 25 article for British Vogue. During the pandemic, many fashionistas, from major corporations to DIY home sewers, have stepped up to make masks, gloves, and other items for health-care workers on the front lines of the battle to stave off the infectious disease known as Covid-19.

The garment industry has been a centerpiece of American ingenuity since the 1800s. An enormous influx of immigrants around the turn of the twentieth century toiled in the industry, often in sweatshops churning out clothing and other items. Israeli-born, New York-based artist Judith Weller honored the immigrant employees with her eight-foot-high statue The Garment Worker, a tribute to her father, a garment industry machine operator. Weller expanded the piece from its original twenty-four-inch height; the large-scale sculpture was commissioned by the Public Art Fund and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and donated to the city of New York by a wide range of garmentos, from Anne Klein, Bill Blass, Ellen Tracy, Liz Claiborne, and Ralph Lauren to the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union, the Association of Rain Apparel Contractors, the Jewish Community Fund, the Ladies Apparel Contractors Association, and United Tool, among others. “When I was a little girl, I recall seeing him at work,” Weller said of her father at the time of the installation, which was initially scheduled to run from October 31, 1984, to the following Halloween but is now permanent. “I utilized what I know of him as well as my memory in creating the sculpture.”

Judith Weller honors her Jewish immigrant father with statue (photo by twi-ny/ees

Popular Garment District sculpture reveals skill and determination of fashion industry workers (photo by twi-ny/ees)

The bronze man, wearing a yarmulke, sits determinedly at his sewing machine, carefully stitching fabric. He’s focused on his hands, which delicately push down on the material; the table he works on is open to reveal his legs and feet. The drudgery is apparent on his stern face, as is his dedication to his task. Perhaps today the man would be making masks and gloves to save the lives of New Yorkers and other Americans. “The human figure expresses my struggle, anxiety, frustration, yearning, and hope. It offers unlimited and inexhaustible possibilities,” Weller explains in her artist statement.

The Garment Worker continues to work every day in the shadow of the giant button and needle that lean on the Garment District Information Kiosk at the corner of Thirty-Ninth St. and Seventh Ave. (Fashion Ave.). He is no mere relic of the past but a reminder of who we all are and where we came from, and what we can do to maintain the country’s ever-more-fragile infrastructure.

(photo by twi-ny/ees)

Judith Weller honors her Jewish immigrant father with statue (photo by twi-ny/ees)

“The big question is whether this spontaneous surge of human spirit, practicality, and creativity will grow strongly enough, for long enough, to turn fashion’s priorities around,” Mower writes in British Vogue. “Will this nightmare time actually become a historic and positive turning point, converting both industry producers and wearers to, literally, a new way of seeing and valuing clothes? There’s a possibility that all these weeks of staying at home will result in discovering a streak of waste-not creativity we never knew we had.” That evaluation is right on the button, hitting the . nail on the head.

BALTO

(photo by twi-ny/mdr)

Heroic sled dog Balto stands ready for action in Central Park (photo by twi-ny/mdr)

Central Park
West of East Drive & 67th St.
www.centralparknyc.org
balto slideshow

If only we had a hero like Balto now, a brave sled dog racing to deliver a magic elixir that would save us from the deadly coronavirus. There’s no medicine yet to cure the world of COVID-19, but in 1925, Siberian husky Balto, leading the team of musher Gunnar Kassen, galloped into Nome, Alaska, with a diphtheria antitoxin to help defeat a horrible outbreak of the killer disease.

(photo by twi-ny/mdr)

New York City could use a hero like Balto right about now (photo by twi-ny/mdr)

Named after Norwegian Sámi explorer Samuel Johannesen Balto, who traversed Greenland with Fridtjof Nansen in 1888, Balto was born in Nome in 1919 and died in 1933 in Cleveland, where his remains are mounted in the city’s Museum of Natural History. On December 17, 1925, Brooklyn-born sculptor Frederick G. R. Roth’s statue of Balto was dedicated on a small outcropping of rock west of East Dr. and Sixty-Seventh St. in Central Park, near an underpass north of the children’s zoo. The regal dog stands proudly, tongue out, eyes eagerly anticipating his next job, his front paws higher than his back paws, giving him a noble position. His ears, back, and belly have lost some of their original dark color because kids and adults rub them for good luck. Balto himself attended the statue’s unveiling, with Kassen. On the rock below the classy canine is a plaque that reads:

“Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin six hundred miles over rough ice across treacherous waters through arctic blizzards from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the winter of 1925. Endurance Fidelity Intelligence.”

Roth also designed the Mother Goose statue, featuring Humpty Dumpty, Old King Cole, Little Jack Horner, Mother Hubbard, and Mary and her little lamb, that resides in front of Rumsey Playfield, as well as the bronze lion at Columbia University’s Baker Field. Balto, who was neutered and therefore could not be bred, has also been immortalized in Carl Barks’s Uncle Scrooge comic book (as “Barko”), in Alistair MacLean’s 1959 novel Night without End, and in Simon Wells’s 1995 animated live-action film, Balto, in which he’s voiced by Kevin Bacon.

(photo by twi-ny/mdr)

Balto attended the dedication of his statue in Central Park in 1925 (photo by twi-ny/mdr)

Most of us are sheltered at home, but if you have to go out — as of now, parks are open, and sunshine and fresh air are healthy alternatives to being shut inside, as long as you maintain social distancing — stop by and say hello to Balto, although you’re probably better off not petting him. And just imagine him leading a pack bringing in much-needed gloves, masks, respirators, and ventilators, helping humanity once again in another dramatic health crisis.

COVID-19 & NEW YORK CITY ARTS AND CULTURE

covid-19-faq

Since May 2001, twi-ny has been recommending cool things to do throughout the five boroughs, popular and under-the-radar events that draw people out of their homes to experience film, theater, dance, art, literature, music, food, comedy, and more as part of a live audience in the most vibrant community on Earth.

With the spread of Covid-19 and the closing of all cultural institutions, sports venues, bars, and restaurants (for dining in), we feel it is our duty to prioritize the health and well-being of our loyal readers. So, for the next several weeks at least, we won’t be covering any public events in which men, women, and children must congregate in groups, a more unlikely scenario day by day anyway.

That said, as George Bernard Shaw once noted, “Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.”

Some parks are still open, great places to breathe in fresh air, feel the sunshine, and watch the changing of winter into spring. We will occasionally be pointing out various statues, sculptures, and installations, but check them out only if you are already going outside and will happen to be nearby.

You don’t have to shut yourself away completely for the next weeks and months — for now, you can still go grocery shopping and pick up takeout — but do think of others as you go about your daily life, which is going to be very different for a while. We want each and every one of you to take care of yourselves and your families, follow the guidelines for social distancing, and consider the health and well-being of those around you.

We look forward to seeing you indoors and at festivals and major outdoor events as soon as possible, once New York, America, and the rest of the planet are ready to get back to business. Until then, you can find us every so often under the sun, moon, clouds, and stars, finding respite in this amazing city now in crisis.

WE’RE GONNA DIE

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die has been gloriously remounted by Raja Feather Kelly at Second Stage (photo by Joan Marcus)

2econd Stage Theater, Tony Kiser Theater
305 West 43rd St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 22, $69-$125
2st.com/shows

“There’s a very good chance you’re not going to die,” President Trump said when news about the coronavirus crisis was first spreading. While that might be true when it comes to Covid-19, it’s not true in general, as mightily declared by Young Jean Lee in Raja Feather Kelly’s glorious remounting of her one-act play with music, We’re Gonna Die, continuing at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater through March 22. The sixty-five-minute work consists of stories about loneliness and death that Lee collected from friends and relatives and transformed into a series of monologues delivered by one woman, as if all these awful events happened to her. Lee first presented the show at Joe’s Pub and then at Lincoln Center’s Clare Tow Theater, where she was the lead, backed by her rock band, Future Wife.

Janelle McDermoth now takes over, and she is dazzling as she relates poignant tales and blasts out songs both gentle and fierce across David Zinn’s calming, antiseptic set, a kind of hospital waiting room with a vending machine, lots of empty chairs and a central spiral staircase that goes through the ceiling and the floor, evoking a way station. As you enter the theater, a large-scale neon sign of the title moves slowly back and forth in front of the stage, a reminder of what is going to eventually happen to each and every one of us. Guitarists Freddy Hall and bandleader Kevin Ramessar, keyboardist and dance captain Ximone Rose, and bassist Debbie Christine Tjong enter and sit down, while drummer Marques Walls plays in a separate room off to stage left. As the show continues, balloons occasionally drop from above, accumulating in a far corner, telling us that even though this might be about the inevitability of death, it doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun.

The stories are told chronologically, as if belonging to one life, beginning with the presenter as a little girl trying to understand her weird uncle and why her two best friends shunned her, then considering dating and partnering relationships with men and caring for her ailing father. The songs, which pour forth from a wide range of genres — the arrangements are by Remy Kurs, with orchestrations by Cian McCarthy — relate directly to the tales, beginning with the opening number, “Lullaby for the Miserable,” in which the singer remembers something her mother told her when she was unable to get to sleep as a child: “When your brain’s had enough / And your body gives up / You will sleep / By and by / By and by / You will sleep / By and by / You are not the only one / You are not the only one / You are not the only one / You are not the only one.” That repetition serves as a leitmotif for the rest of the show, which emphasizes that no one is spared from life’s problems and, eventually, death itself.

Later, the singer recalls, “About a year ago, I went back home for a younger cousin’s wedding, and while I was at home, I found my first white hair. Now, I had never been a person who worried at all about getting older or losing my looks — I just never thought about that stuff. So it all just kind of hit me in this one moment. . . . I had reached the point in my life where everything from here on out was going to be a downward decline towards deterioration and sickness and death. And this had never occurred to me before, so I was really traumatized.” She follows that up with a funky, funny number about something her grandmother told her mother: “When you get old / You will lose your mind! / And everything will hurt all the time! Uh-huh / Uh-huh / . . . / When you get old / All your friends will die! / And you will be a burden to the world! / Uh-huh / Uh-huh.” Among the other songs, whose titles sum things up pretty clearly, are “I Still Have You,” “Comfort of the Lonely,” and “Horrible Things.” Even the Korean-born Lee’s full name, Young Jean Lee, seems relevant, suggesting a youthfulness even though the “Young” is an Americanization of her surname.

In 2016, the Brooklyn-based Lee — a multitalented writer and performer whose previous plays include Straight White Men, Lear, The Shipment, and Untitled Feminist Show — and Future Wife released a DVD of readings and songs from the show with such special guests as Colin Stetson, Kathleen Hanna, Adam Horovitz, Sara Neufeld, David Byrne, and Laurie Anderson, but there’s nothing like seeing it with one singer, and McDermoth (A Bronx Tale, Soul Doctor) is a revelation. Dressed in cool yellow and black leather (the costumes are by Naoko Nagata), she struts around with an infectious determination and a nod and a wink, winning over the audience immediately and never letting go; she is us, and we are her. Kelly, who has choreographed such plays as Fairview, A Strange Loop, The House That Will Not Stand, and Girls, explodes We’re Gonna Die to the next level, transforming it from an involving song cycle to a more fully fledged theatrical production. There’s a clock onstage that depicts the real time, minutes and seconds ticking away not just in our lives but, more important, on the show itself. I found myself filled with sadness as the sixty-minute mark approached, knowing it would soon be over. But I was also energized and invigorated by the fantastic finale, in which everyone participates and caution is thrown to the wind. Yeah, so we’re all gonna die. That shouldn’t mean that we can’t make the most of every moment we’re still here.

WOMEN ON FIRE: STORIES FROM THE FRONTLINES

(photo by Russ Rowland)

Chris Henry’s Women on Fire: Stories from the Frontlines is based on true stories about women in today’s America (photo by Russ Rowland)

Royal Family Performing Arts Space
145 West 46th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves., third floor
Friday - Monday through March 16, $30-$250
www.royalfamilyproductions.org

Chris Henry’s Women on Fire: Stories from the Frontlines is meant to be an empowering call to action. Unfortunately, it too often resembles an intense Facebook thread in which the majority of the participants are firmly on the left, arguing with a couple of right-wing Trump supporters. But the eighty-minute work is terrifically acted by a diverse cast of fifteen actresses and features dynamic choreography performed by four powerful dancers who serve as a kind of Greek chorus of movement (and occasionally sound).

As you enter the Royal Family Performing Arts Space, yellow caution tape separates the audience from the set, a postapocalyptic scene with black plastic bags partially blocking exposed brick walls and lightbulbs precariously dangling from the ceiling. Women are sitting on chairs and benches in the dark. The caution tape is ripped apart as if declaring, “Here we come!” And one by one, the women walk front and center holding a piece of paper and delivering monologues about rape, misogyny, sexism, abortion, race, discrimination, sexual assault, and other hard-hitting issues. Each story is based on interviews Henry conducted. “I feel like I’m in The Handmaid’s Tale and I can’t get out,” Offred (Stephanie J. Block) says. “1, 2, buckle my shoe / 3, 4, close the door / 5, 6, pick up sticks / 7, 8, lay them straight / 9, 10, big fat hen. That’s how I got through sex,” Kara (Gina Naomi Baez) confesses. “Okay, here’s the deal. You don’t get to be a Roman Polanski fan anymore,” Lisa (Alysia Reiner) shouts. Julia rails against the philosophy behind Pretty Woman. Jo praises Hillary Clinton but lambasts Bill as a sexual predator. The most moving story comes from Maya (Gargi Mukherjee), who details a sexual assault at a threading parlor.

(photo by Russ Rowland)

Maddie Corman is part of rotating cast of incendiary Women on Fire (photo by Russ Rowland)

On the other side, Courtney (Maddie Corman) explains, “I think people get so worked up about silly things; I mean, boys will be boys,” Taty accuses the Democrats of being dangerously wrong on Cuba, and Charle (Cynthia Mace) doesn’t understand why Black Lives Matter is more important than Blue Lives Matter. After speaking their peace, the women put their paper into a mini-cauldron. Each segment is preceded by a ferocious interpretive dance by Samantha Butts, Emily Anne Davis, Erica Misilo, Samantha Warner, and/or Mariah Reive, who occasionally interact with the other performers. The effective set design, lighting, and costumes are by Cheyenne Sykes, with original music by Lars Jacobsen; Henry codirects the play with choreographer Lorna Ventura. The impressive rotating cast also includes Kathy Brier, Andréa Burns, Rosa Curry, Paige Gilbert, Judy Gold, Julie Halston, Simone Harrison, Cady Huffman, Steffanie Leigh, Rebecca Nelson, Olivia Oguma, Portia, Connie Ray, Laila Robins, Debra Jo Rupp, Constance Shulman, Lianah Sta. Ana, Desi Waters, and Ashley Williams.

“This play is not meant to be perfect. . . . This is just a pebble in a giant ocean of stories,” Henry explains in a program note. She’s more right than she realizes. Too many of the tales, though true, are clichéd and obvious, preaching to the choir, starting with the first monologue, when Margaret reads a long list of Donald Trump’s shameful deeds while campaigning and then as president. We are familiar with every one of them, so there are no surprises; it feels like we’re watching MSNBC or reading a social media post from Mother Jones. The night I went, the ritual finale did not catch fire because of a faulty lighter. But that did not stop the play’s inner fury, best represented by Rachel, who delivers a profanity-laced tirade against the treatment of women in today’s America.

72 MILES TO GO . . .

(photo by Jeremy Daniel)

A family bands together after the mother gets deported in timely 72 Miles to Go . . . (photo by Jeremy Daniel)

Laura Pels Theatre
Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
111 West 46th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through May 3, $79-$149
212-719-1300
www.roundabouttheatre.org

Hilary Bettis puts a distinctly human face on the immigration crisis in 72 Miles to Go . . . , making its world premiere at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre through May 3. But Bettis and director Jo Bonney don’t turn it into a political screed; instead, the story takes place between 2008 and 2016, before Donald Trump took office and ICE started tearing children away from parents and keeping them in cages. It’s a slice-of-life drama, concentrating on the little things that make up family life on a daily basis.

The show is bookended by the final sermon delivered by retiring Unitarian minister Billy (Triney Sandoval) to his flock in his Tucson church. “I spent months and months working on this sermon, trying to get every word just right. Hoping to leave this congregation I love so deeply with some words that’ll stick with you after I’m gone. But I’m standing here now, and none of those words feel right,” he says, adding after a pause, “That was a bit dramatic, but I couldn’t resist the theatrics of it.” It’s a poignant comment that not only sets the stage for the story but relates to Bettis’s process, which involves constant rewriting; at a recent talkback, she admitted making significant changes throughout the preview process, including to the opening sermon just a few days before I saw the play.

Photos - Jeremy Daniel

Eva (Jacqueline Guillén) and her father (Triney Sandoval) soldier on after her mother’s deportation in Roundabout world premiere by Hillary Bettis (photo by Jeremy Daniel)

Billy lives with his three children, fourteen-year-old Aaron (Tyler Alvarez), a science lover who is entering high school; seventeen-year-old Eva (Jacqueline Guillén), who is preparing her valedictorian speech for her high school graduation, and twenty-three-year-old Christian (Bobby Moreno), an undocumented immigrant who is having trouble finding a job because he has no papers. Billy’s wife, Anita (Maria Elena Ramirez), has been deported and is in Nogales, Mexico, seventy-two miles away; Billy rescued Anita and Christian, who were both born in Mexico, when he found them in the desert, escaping their dangerous country for a new life in America. Billy and the kids communicate with Anita via cellphone as she tries to obtain legal status to return to the United States and Christian applies for the DACA program, ever on edge that he will be caught and deported at any moment. They are all dreamers in the midst of a nightmare. “I can’t sleep,” Aaron tells his sister. “I dreamed there was this huge flood and it poured into our house and no one could swim except me, but I couldn’t hold you and Dad and Mom and Christian and then we all drown.”

Rachel Hauck’s set is a standard-issue kitchen and living room, except the back wall is like a huge border with sky seen in the distance, as if they’re trapped from that outside world, large telephone poles a reminder of the only way they can remain in contact with Anita. Billy, Christian, Eva, and Aaron all make compromises and, at times, dangerous choices in order to get Anita back and live again as a complete family, free from the panic and dread that hover over them. Bettis (Alligator, The Americans), whose father is a minister and whose mother comes from Tucson, writes incisive, perceptive dialogue and Bonney (Cost of Living, Father Comes Home from the Wars) is a smart, wily director, but Bettis’s recurrent revisions might be why a few scenes still feel unfinished. Sandoval (The Thin Place, A Free Man of Color) leads a strong cast, emphasizing Billy’s essentially easygoing nature (and penchant for bad jokes) as he struggles to put his family back together and live without fear, his heart obviously aching. “The older I get, the more I realize that it’s not the grand events that give our lives meaning and purpose. It’s the small everyday moments we take for granted,” he says in his sermon. And that’s not too much to ask for.

BLUES FOR AN ALABAMA SKY

(photo by Carol Rosegg)

Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky makes its New York premiere in Keen Company revival (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Theatre Row
410 West 42nd St. between Ninth & Tenth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 14, $28-$65
www.keencompany.org/blues

Keen Company’s revival of Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky is set in Harlem in 1930, but it’s a tribute to the writing that it feels like it was written in 1930 as well, capturing the unique spirit of that moment in time when the Great Depression, Prohibition, and the Harlem Renaissance merged together. But Cleage actually wrote the play in 1995, and, surprisingly, this is its New York premiere, continuing at Theatre Row through March 14.

You-shin Chen’s effective period set is an open stage linking a pair of small Harlem apartments. Living in one is the openly gay Guy Jacobs (John-Andrew Morrison), a fashion designer trying to make it big by creating costumes for Josephine Baker in Paris, which might just be a pipe dream. His best friend, nightclub chanteuse Angel Allen (Alfie Fuller), moves in with him after her gangster boyfriend dumps her and she gets fired. Across the hall is the more traditional Delia Patterson (Jasminn Johnson), who is seeking the help of Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and the Abyssinian Baptist Church as she works with birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger to start a family planning clinic in the neighborhood, an uphill battle in a Christian community. She falls for Sam Thomas (Sheldon Woodley), a doctor at Harlem Hospital who delivers babies and has, in the past, performed illegal abortions. Meanwhile, after helping Angel home when she was in a drunken stupor, widower Leland Cunningham (Khiry Walker), a younger, narrow-minded man from Tuskegee, Alabama, who has only recently arrived in Harlem, takes a liking to Angel and becomes determined to make her his bride.

(photo by Carol Rosegg)

Guy (John-Andrew Morrison), Angel (Alfie Fuller), and Sam (Sheldon Woodley) toast to the future in Blues for an Alabama Sky (photo by Carol Rosegg)

The play resonates in today’s sociopolitical climate as it deals with racism, homophobia, unemployment, a woman’s right to choose, religion, and gun violence. “You can sing the blues,” Guy says to Angel early on. “Everybody in Harlem is singing the blues,” Angel retorts.

Fuller (BLKS, Measure for Measure) is magnetic as the wild and woolly, utterly unpredictable Angel, a role originated by Phylicia Rashad and also played by Robin Givens, Jasmine Guy, and Crystal Fox, among others. She also looks fabulous in Asa Benally’s hot, slinky outfits, even when Angel is suffering from a terrible hangover. Morrison is shaky as the flamboyant Guy, appearing lost when other characters are talking, but the rest of the cast is solid under LA Williams’s (Rated Black: An American Requiem by Kareem M. Lucas, Measure for Measure) prudent direction.

Cleage (Mad at Miles: A Black Woman’s Guide to Truth, Flyin’ West), a playwright and novelist who was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, was raised in West Detroit, and has lived in Atlanta for several decades, was inspired to write Blues for an Alabama Sky while driving back from the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery and gazing out the window, marveling at the stars filling the night and wondering what the sky was like in New York amid all the neon and skyscrapers. The play is very much about dreams, both individually and collectively, from people moving to the city to start over to others seeking to make a difference in their community. “I’m tired of Negro dreams,” Angel says. “All they ever do is break your heart.” If Blues for an Alabama Sky is anything, it is certainly heartbreaking.

';