In ‘Downtown Stories,’ Theater That Uses New York as Its Stage
“Mic check 1, 2, 1, 2. Welcome to the official unofficial unauthorized ‘Hamilton!’ walking tour,” the actress Michelle J. Rodriguez called out into her portable voice amplifier, a headset with a microphone and speaker, worn like a fanny pack. “Just kidding, it’s authorized. I just like to say that.”
So begins “Uncovering Downtown: A Magical Expedition of Unrecorded Dreams,” one of two walking tours in “Downtown Stories,” a series of interactive theater being staged through June 25 in downtown Manhattan. Presented by Downtown Alliance, a nonprofit organization that manages Lower Manhattan’s business improvement district, and En Garde Arts, an experimental theater company, the three productions — two guided tours and one “docu-theater” play — weave New York City’s landmarks into the storytelling.
The actress Michelle J. Rodriguez leads a fictional walking tour about Alexander Hamilton. Credit…Calla Kessler for The New York Times
“Who wore it better, Lin-Manuel or Alexander?” Rodriguez continued with the enthusiasm of a college tour guide, drawing from her days as an actual campus tour guide at Williams College. Fun facts are delivered like a history lesson until you remember that you’re on a fictional walking tour. Were Hamilton’s gold epaulets really sold at auction for $1.15 million? (They were.)
The play takes its audience members through crowds of rushed New Yorkers and unhurried tourists, perhaps some on their own “Hamilton & Washington” history tours, meandering from Bowling Green Park to the back alley of Marketfield Street — stopping for a moment outside the New York Stock Exchange to observe tourists gawking at the bronze “Charging Bull” sculpture. (“Boy, do people really like to take pictures with an ass,” Rodriguez says.)
Anne Hamburger, the artistic director of En Garde Arts, said the inspiration for the work came from “theater being ingrained with the city at large.”
She added, “That’s what I’m excited by, coming together with a group of artists and saying, ‘How would you use this city as a stage?’”
All three productions tell the tales of what the company calls “dreams from New York’s oldest streets.” In “Uncovering Downtown,” directed by Jessica Holt and written by Mona Mansour (“The Vagrant Trilogy”), audiences follow an out-of-work Puerto Rican performance artist who takes a job leading a “Hamilton!” walking tour. “We the People (Not the Bots),” written by Eric Lockley and directed by Morgan Green, introduces a man visiting from the future. He’s here to teach lessons about the past in hopes of stopping the world from becoming a robot-controlled society. The time traveler, played by Lockley, takes his audience to the Soldiers’ Monument at Trinity Church, where he embodies a prisoner of war in 1777, and to the Department of Motor Vehicles at 11 Greenwich Street, where he tells the story of a young Jean-Michel Basquiat tagging Lower Manhattan with graffiti art.
In writing a sci-fi production heavy on rendering historical moments, Lockley said he wanted to think about how Black people might “use ancestry in the future to arm ourselves.”
“I want to remind people that we are more than what we see,” he said. “There’s a spiritual element to it.”
In the documentary-theater piece “Sidewalk Echoes,” performed at the John Street United Methodist Church, the playwright Rogelio Martinez and the director Johanna McKeon tell the stories of working immigrants. An Irish immigrant lands a job at an Italian restaurant but can’t pronounce orecchiette. A Catholic man from India begins working as a gas station attendant but quits after three days when the owner asks him if he wears a diaper on his head. An Uzbeki immigrant by way of Israel earns his barber’s license by demonstrating a haircut on a homeless man.
“When you see someone sleeping on the subway it’s not because they don’t want to work,” the barber says. “Maybe they just work too hard.”
These are the stories of the people working in downtown Manhattan’s businesses. To write the script, Martinez listened to hours of interviews that Hamburger had conducted with local business owners. He then created narratives about immigrants building their lives in New York City. Some of the lines in the play were taken verbatim from their conversations, others are composites of multiple characters, blending together history, fact and fiction.
“As an immigrant myself, I’m always interested in reinventing yourself and changing the pattern of one’s stories,” said Martinez, who is from Cuba. “This is my chance to listen to a community reflect. And from there, I could craft my story.”
In the show, a banker turned food and wellness advocate tells a friend back in her native Australia that here, “people are really restless.”
“We reinvent ourselves,” she tells the audience, sitting in the church pews. “Body cells replace themselves every seven years or so. And that’s in our DNA. And it just so happens it’s in New York’s DNA, too.”
Each 45-minute walking tour concludes at neighborhood restaurants where audience members can use their $20 ticket as a meal voucher to support a local eatery. “Sidewalk Echoes” is free.