By David Walters
Downtown Urban Arts Festival, now in its 21st year, began in 2001 to help bring back theater to lower Manhattan after 9/11 and has since its inception produced over 200 playwrights and 279 plays. Their objective is to give a theatrical voice to an urban population that doesn’t often get the chance to be seen in a theatrical way. It’s a highly commendable goal and the longevity of the festival attests to its need and the space required to begin to fill this void. The festival is presenting an impressive 16 shows now through June 24th.
Even though everything is pretty much bare bones, and the majority of the producing is put on the artists shoulders, making theater costs a lot in this city. And because of that each play is only given one shot at a performance during the festival. To say the least, that’s a lot of work hours in the writing, directing, acting, designing, rehearsing, and producing for one evening. Something like this can only be accomplished with a mountain of passion. That passion is plainly evident on the stage when I was able to catch two of the shows in the festival. I was able to see The Dandiest Duo by Marcus Harmon and By the Light of the Ghetto Moon by Susan Justiniano. I am giving the presentation a lot of leeway as concerns quality due to the tremendous restrictions placed on these artists and erring on the side of drive, spirit, gumption, and passion. If for no other reason, go and see several of these shows for the rawness of the work and talent.
The world is off its axis and Donald Trump is King. The NAACP is now a terrorist organization. Welcome to the the world of The Dandiest Duo. In order to survive, two black entertainers (Jonathan Tyler Pecker and Michael Antwi) are doing an old-time minstrel show for the white people where racism has become funny and popular, has become a hit, and is making them some serious money (“Who needs dignity when you have dollars.”) in a world where it is now otherwise impossible to. Their souls are torn by what they are debasing themselves to and the money has become the only reason for what they’re doing, but sometimes money is not enough. Their white manager has something to say about this though that might make their minds up for them.
Taking a very loose translation of a tone poem, By the Light of the Ghetto Moon is the backyard, neighborhood, and street memory of growing up Puerto Rican with the joys, the music, the trauma, and the strong sense of identity. The poetry in the piece lifts it off the stage and allows it to float among the projections of city life and dance among the clothes drying on the line. Jane’s (Nancy Mendez-Booth) only companion, confidant, and sometimes mischievous Puck, is the moon (Chelsea Rodriguez). The play attempts to bring the poem to the stage, but it comes across as the opposite, the play brings the stage to the poem. I would have been just as happy to hear the poem with the backdrop of city life from where it emanated and listen as memory glides us from The Light of the Ghetto Moon to The Light of a Full Moon.
I commend Downtown Urban Arts for the work they have been doing these 21 years. They provide an opportunity to many that otherwise wouldn’t have the chance.
The Dandiest Duo, written and directed by Marcus Harmon
Starring: Jonathan Tyler Pecker, Michael Antwi, and Hartley Erickson
By the Light of the Ghetto Moon, written by Susan Justiniano and directed by Summer Dawn
Starring: Chelsea Rodriguez and Nancy Mendez-Booth
At the Peter Jay Sharp Theater 416 W. 42nd Street @ Playwrights Horizons
As always, this is just one person’s opinion in a world filled with them.