Audiences of the latest play to appear at The New Ohio Theater can relish the sweetly comedic absurdity of an Indian man handing an Ecuadorian woman a mango as if she might not know what it was, and of a Latino drag queen tenderly assuring his straight-laced, off-duty policeman one-night stand, “Being a cop is nothing to be ashamed of.”
Although these moments are played for laughs, their implications are complex and enduring. The latter occurs as a delicate, unlikely, and moving love affair unfolds. The former supplies one of the play’s titles—I Like to Be Here: Jackson Heights Revisited, or This is a Mango—and conveys the essence of this Theatre 167 production: a series of vignettes of life in Jackson Heights, during which difference is presupposed, subtly examined, and occasionally dissolved.
Theatre 167—creators of the Jackson Heights Trilogy (167 Tongues, You are Now the Owner of This Suitcase, and Jackson Heights 3AM)—is a multicultural ensemble, whose name refers to the number of distinct languages spoken in this startlingly diverse Queens neighborhood, and whose work aims to showcase a multiplicity of voices.
The troupe’s most recent offering, directed by Ari Laura Kreith, is true to their collaborative vision. With seven playwrights and a talented cast of 18 players, the play dips seamlessly into various residents’ interwoven lives: a Calcutta-born cabbie pines for an Ecuadorian baker, who makes friends with her Mexican neighbor, who is waiting anxiously—sin documentos—for her Russian lover to arrange an escape route to Disneyland.
The result is a glorious mish-mash of cultures; a remarkably high-definition cross-section of one vibrant neighborhood (streets, homes, places of work) that feels like an intimate encounter.
All of which makes the play a perfect ambassador for this year’s Theater:Village Festival, whose 2014 theme is “E pluribus,” or “out of many.” This, the second annual Theater:Village, features four new plays hosted by prominent West Village theaters (Axis, Cherry Lane, New Ohio, and Rattlestick) aiming to celebrate “the diversity of America.”
A noble goal, surely, but not one particularly easy to pull off; well-meaning celebrations of diversity often end up being hackneyed, rose-tinted, cheese-ball and oddly depoliticised. Somehow, I Like to Be Here skilfully avoids said pitfalls.
It might be something to do with the way stereotypes are played with and broken down—so while we have a deliciously camp Colombian drag queen (with a tiara as a trademark and a powerful taxi-cab diatribe against oppression), we also see a progressive Mexican father whose only complaint against his child’s new gay lover is, “You’re not good enough for my son.”
Although earnest in mission, I Like to Be Here is resolutely irreverent in its execution: hilarious and poignant in equal measure, it doesn’t need to superficially strive to celebrate diversity because diversity is there regardless, intimately infused into the daily life of Jackson Heights.
This, the almost journalistic sense of veracity that permeates the vignettes, is one of the play’s greatest assets. Dialogue is lively and unexpected—as if lifting all the choicest moments from an ordinary day (“I feel like a teenager,” mutters the closeted cop having been discovered by his lover’s barely bilingual father. “In a foreign exchange program,” he adds).
Certain encounters are painfully familiar to the average New Yorker: the Bangladeshi guy quietly eating his lunch who is accosted by the weirdly sympathetic lunatic/crystal meth addict in a jock-strap and the throes of rejection; the Colombian woman who is needlessly intimidated by the neighborhood police patrol.
Indeed, the role of the NYPD is interesting—particularly in light of the rising tide of outraged anti-police feeling. I Like to Be Here refuses to indulge in vilification, so while encapsulating the perceived role of officers in heavily policed neighborhoods (wandering through, somewhat thuggishly, and carelessly interrogating innocent passers by), the playwrights also give us a glimpse into the emotional and familial lives of those same officers. And then, of course, there’s the closeted gay cop on leave from Massapequa who has a bit of a hero moment.
Anyway, the point is—this play genuinely made me sort of fall back in love with the city. And I mean the city in general, although Jackson Heights is the kind of neighborhood that lies at the heart of New York’s brash, broiling, buzzing appeal: one as yet un-homogenized by gentrification, where a stalwart Irish immigrant shares a block with a recently arrived South Indian dosa chef, and both (one imagines) are trying their best to pick up a bit of Spanish to make ordering arepas slightly smoother.
It’s the type of neighborhood that is a delight for the casual flaneur, and it is the transitory sensory overload and immersion—the insider-outsider gaze—of flaneurship that is so beautifully compressed into this two-hour play.
It is also the kind of neighborhood (“organic, spontaneous, and untidy”), one thinks, that Jane Jacobs dreamed of as she wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities from her home in the once-Bohemian Village. Jane would have been pleased as punch, no doubt, to have such a joyful enactment of dynamic, high-density local living visit her old neighborhood—even if its setting is several miles to the north-east.
“In our American cities, we need all kinds of diversity,” Jacobs wrote. Let’s only hope we can preserve this kind of comingling, even as it is pressed further and further from the center. Because it does make the city seem that much more human; the antithesis of Eliot’s “Unreal City,” peopled by a shapeless mass. I was practically singing along to Juanes—“Tengo La Camisa Negra” was the closing tune—as I left the theatre.
I Like to Be Here will be playing as part of the Theater:Village Festival through September 27. Tickets are $18, or get a four-play pass for $95. More information here.