Downtown Race Riot, written by Seth Zvi Rosenfeld and ably directed by Scott Elliott, hails back to the 1970s Greenwich Village for the setting. At the time discrimination and ethnocentrism raged in areas of New York City. As a pivotal, metaphoric backdrop to fuel the action and explore themes, the playwright references an actual violent incident. Thus, the riot that erupted in Washington Square Park in 1976 becomes the lens through which the playwright elucidates ongoing issues our nation faces today.
At the time twenty young men armed with bats, chains, and pipes rampaged through the park assaulting bystanders and innocents. Rumors swirled that their motivation, allegedly discriminatory, actually revealed that a drug dealer scammed a buyer. Nevertheless, during the riot, one man died and thirteen others sustained injuries. Though their bellicosity telegraphed an intimidating message to blacks and Puerto Ricans to stay out of the neighborhood, “hate crimes” did not exist at the time. Instead, the charges concerned riot, assault, and manslaughter. Initially, the prosecutor charged nine defendants. However, the case ended up being retried because of a judge’s decision (excessive prosecutorial zeal). Finally, the prosecutor brought in three convictions on charges of assault and riot, the sentences up to 15 years imprisonment.
Cleverly, Rosenfeld weaves this event into an intriguing dynamic. Indeed, all of the young men in the play have pledged to rampage in the park, but as a cover for another deed. And as the play progresses toward an explosive climax, we discover the underlying reasons for their scheduled brutality. Importantly, we recognize how cultural mores and attitudes misdirect behavior toward dark rationales which nullify empathy and create chaos.
Some of the themes Rosenfeld highlights involve familial conflicts, personal ethics, self-definition, and moral relativity influenced by cultural folkways. His authentic dialogue, which infuses the intricate characterizations, supply Elliot with the grist to tease out superb performances. Most especially Chloë Sevigny, David Levi, and Moise Morancy, lead protagonists, deliver a riveting, heart-breaking humanity. Thus, we identify, though we prefer not to. Their intensity and desperation to achieve their desires become the central core of the dark currents of emotion that create the ongoing conflicts.
Not only do the finely tuned performances resonate, we understand each of the characters’ inner entanglements. Sevigny’s Mary attempts to juggle her drug addiction with resourceful, self-blinding scams. As a result her self-destructive solutions increase her money woes. Though she attempts to offset her self-surpressed misery with drug escape and manipulation of others, her plans warp into chaos.
For example, lawyer Bob Gilman (a very funny Josh Pais) provides his legal advice while snorting the coke Mary supplies. And as she attempts to ingratiate herself to Bob with sex, justifying her “work” for the family, her actions enrage Levi’s Jimmy who belittles her as a “whore.” Their confrontation intensifies the undercurrents between them: her fear of losing him, his fear of her self-destruction. They strain at the pull of being close yet suffocating each other. The scene represents fine work by both actors.
Nevertheless, as Mary annihilates herself with drugs, she still tries to nurture her near grown-up children with love. Perhaps, it is her attempts that encourage Jimmy and Joyce (a fine Sadie Scott), to strive for autonomy, to define themselves away from a crushing, demoralizing background and Mary’s debilitation.
Ironically, their unresolved inner turmoil drives them into fires they cannot extinguish, fires which can only immolate them. Joyce seeks self-definition in a hot sexual relationship with Hatian-born Marcel (the wonderful Moise Morancy). This can only dead end if Marcel, the only black, goes to the riot later in the day to support the neighborhood white friends. Jimmy must decide where he stands between family and friendship with Marcel. Should he go to the park with Marcel for “the gang” or avoid it as Mary commands him? Both yield terrible outcomes, if he selects one over the other. Yet his emotional ties with his mother and his friend Marcel run deep, and into the abyss.
In this carnivorous culture where the scammers scam themselves, we hope for Joyce and Jimmy. Rosenfeld’s themes with incisive performances shepherded by Elliot reveal that the external riot which threatens is nothing compared to the riot in each of the character’s beings. Thus, the connection clarifies between individual and culture and society. Individuals manifest the through-lines of society. They contribute to the violence or sustain the peace. The family unit broken becomes the culture broken and vice-versa in a looping, repeating cycle of vulnerability.
But through the Shannon family’s struggles and torments, we note Rosenfeld’s overriding message. All humans are broken, some more spectacularly than others. They do the best they can, though it appears to be the worst. At least by the play’s conclusion, they clean up the mess they make to riot another day, perhaps, or learn from the debacle as the tone suggests. Cristian DeMeo and Daniel Sovich round out the fine performances.
Downtown Race Riot empowers toward understanding. And it mesmerizes with its attention to details of setting, the specificity of the actors’ performances, and directorial choices. During the play I considered how much cultural issues have changed yet remained the same. Despite vast advances in technological progress (the set dressing becomes a tragic reminder of this with the phone, refrigerator, plastic lamps, and more), humans generally have remained broken.
Twisted internally, drug dependent, struggling emotionally, people deal on a daily basis as they moderate violent impulses and negotiate generational conflicts. Such is the human condition, the play reveals. On another level the broader view of racism, discrimination, nativism, and underlying cultural complexities has not appeared to have ameliorated. And in the current time they wax like an opening poisonous flower releasing its noxious scent. For that reason as well as the performances and direction, the production is a must-see, a reminder of where we stand as a culture facing the same problems as did Americans forty years ago.
The best theater stirs one to self- recognition. Every once in a while, after all the escapism in entertainment, even that is good for the soul. The New Group’s Production of Downtown Race Riot at The Pershing Square Signature Center runs until 23 December. You may purchase tickets HERE.