Have You Ever Visited the Broncks?
"Look closely and with care, and you’ll find images of unexpected beauty even in a landscape that at first glance looks barren and blighted. As I cruised through the South Bronx in a tour bus during a travelogue called “The Provenance of Beauty” produced by the venturesome Foundry Theater, my eye locked with fascination on the long spools of razor wire uncoiled like giant Slinkys across the top of the neighborhood’s chain-link fences and cinderblock walls. Snared in the cruel teeth of the coils were weather-beaten plastic bags that had been shaped by the wind into tattered little sculptures of strange, transfixing delicacy.
“The Provenance of Beauty” is a highfalutin title for this engrossing urban adventure, which does not conform to the standard formula for theater but does make the bustle outside the bus throb with history, mystery and meaning, as the best live performances do.
You board on 121st Street in East Harlem, donning headsets attached to small radio receivers. As the bus crosses the Willis Avenue Bridge and winds its way through the South Bronx, three narrators — two recorded and one live, sitting in the front — provide poetic commentary and factual context for the sights you see through the windows, making the complex history of a rarely celebrated neighborhood take root in your heart and mind.
For many New Yorkers — we know who we are — the borough across the bridge or through the tunnel might be another country. Manhattan dwellers are particularly susceptible to complacent insularity. I’ll admit I laughed with rueful recognition at a scene in “30 Rock” when Tina Fey’s Upper West Side-dwelling character reacts with dismay to a late-night party invitation proffered by a younger date.
“I’m 37,” she whines. “Please don’t make me go to Brooklyn.”
I saw 37 awhile back, and before I boarded the bus, my knowledge of the Bronx barely extended beyond visits to Yankee Stadium. I didn’t know it was called the Bronx after the early Swedish settler Jonas Bronck. I didn’t know the Bronx had its own flag.
But I am getting ahead of myself and shouldn’t spoil the illuminations of this 90-minute odyssey, written by Claudia Rankine and created by Ms. Rankine and Melanie Joseph, the head of the Foundry Theater, by divulging too much of the historical and demographic detail that makes up about half the narration. The other half comprises Ms. Rankine’s lyric musings on the way that the landscape shapes people, and that people shape the landscape, and the interaction between human beings and the places in which they live and work and fight to establish a sense of belonging — even places that it seems nobody wants to belong to. (A startling statistic, according to the text: more than half the population of the South Bronx evaporated during the 1970s.)
The narration is spoken in smooth, flowing tones by Raúl Castillo and Randy Danson on tape, and the affable Sarah Nina Hayon in person. Some passages are precious or arch, more empty verbiage than sense: “Ultimately the life of a place is placeless. It overflows. It waits for me to coincide with you in the same instant it waits for you to coincide with me. Now here we are despite our individual beginnings, our various islands of birth.” O.K., whatever. You can tune in and tune out at will.
One of the first stops on the travelogue is the American Banknote Building in Hunts Point, where the gentrification that has already transformed many New York neighborhoods has made a tentative foothold. This former money-minting business — called the Penny Factory by locals — is a gorgeous brick pile with soaring mullioned windows, newly adorned with bright yellow and red fire escapes and ducts that recall the colorful accents on Renzo Piano buildings.
A revitalization initiative for the Hunts Point neighborhood has also reclaimed Barretto Point Park, turning what was once an unkempt stretch of waterfront land “overrun by weeds, chickens, goats, vagrants and shacks,” Ms. Hayon recalls, into a placid, pleasant and tidy expanse. And yet this pretty, generic strip of park sits in between a fertilizer plant and a public wastewater treatment plant. Not far away looms the eerie-looking Vernon C. Bain Center, a prison barge affixed to the land like a monstrous barnacle, an adjunct of Rikers Island.
The South Bronx, it seems, has long been a favorite dumping ground for the temporarily or permanently unwanted. In addition to the treatment plant and the prison barge, it is home to 15 waste transfer stations and a massive Con Ed plant, now absurdly clad in a dainty artificial facade suggesting some perky nouveau-retro condo development in the suburbs. That familiar New York villain of yore, Robert Moses, arranged for 17 low-income housing projects to be in the South Bronx, according to the narration.
But in between the giant behemoths that dot the landscape, which also includes the big food warehouses and processing plants ranged along the blandly named Food Center Drive (“Nebraskaland,” one is amusingly called), teeming life asserts its own unruly prerogatives. I was fascinated by the welter of auto parts yards, some dank and grungy, some colorfully painted, each with its own specialty. A row of car doors neatly arrayed on scaffolding looked like a sculpture in the sky. And was that establishment we just passed really called Atlas Bad Auto Glass? Why “bad”?
“The Provenance of Beauty” is directed by Ms. Joseph and Shawn Sides, but of traditional drama there is not much, save for a lovely moment near the end of the tour, in which an emissary from the insulated cocoon of the bus enters the life of the city on the other side of the windows. The action is mundane — just a matter of somebody’s stepping off a bus — but it takes on a strange, startling significance in the context of this elegant meditation on a pocket of the city you might never think of exploring with guidebook in hand.
You’ve come to see with a new immediacy that the distance between two streets, two neighborhoods or two people, between a blighted past or a promising future, between fertility and waste, is as great or as small as we choose to make it."
* I am sharing this because my dear friend, the performance artist The Lovely And Talented Miss Toni Silver attended this performance and said, "I went... and it is really evocative and moving. I loved it." I haven't seen it yet myself but the travelogue-on-a-bus format reminds me of a similar piece called "Nights in This City" created and performed by international, Sheffield England-based Forced Entertainment. If anyone has seen either performance (or both!) I'd love to hear about it.
The Provenance of Beauty
A South Bronx Travelogue
By Claudia Rankine; created by Melanie Joseph and Ms. Rankine; directed by Ms. Joseph and Shawn Sides; project consultant, Sunder Ganglani; sound by Geoff Abbas; video by Kell Condon; production stage manager, Casey Llewellyn; production manager, David Ogle; line producer, Janice Shapiro; associate producer, Anna Hayman. Presented by the Foundry Theater, Ms. Joseph, artistic producer. On a bus driven by Mary Wallace; reservations, (866) 811-4111. Through Oct. 25. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
WITH: Sarah Nina Hayon and the voices of Raúl Castillo and Randy Danson.