sad new book Fire In The Ashes, author Jonathan Kozol
describes the shady side of Manhattan in the 1980s when, in ways not
seen in decades, extravagant financial glut co-existed with abject
poverty. Some of the most shameful slums were hidden in the massive
midtown hotels that rotted years earlier; it was there that New
York's poorest residents lived before being exiled to the
squalor of the South Bronx. One of those dilapidated tenements, a
34th Street gutter known as the Martinique, was where
Kozol met many of the characters whose lives he detailed in social
justice classics like Amazing Grace.
In The Ashes revisits the tragic juxtaposition between haves and
have-nots in Gordon Gekko's Gotham. In 1987, wealth disparity was on
spectacular display on Broadway, where Les Miserables opened
to major acclaim. Kozol writes that as people flocked to drop money
on the musical about misery, poor children from buildings like the
Martinique took to plucking heartstrings, and panhandling outside of
the theater. This practice came to an abrupt end, of course, when
building owners and authorities cracked down on the paupers.
Theatergoers could handle the dramatized hell in 19th
century France, but actual homeless kids from 1987 were eyesores to
be discarded like trash.
thought about this unfortunate Big Apple irony at No Room For
Wishing, a fantastic one man show by Boston actor Danny Bryck and
director Megan Sandberg-Zakian. The play, which gets its last
regional spin tonight (for now at least, though there's a New York performance later this month), is based entirely on
interviews that Bryck conducted with Occupiers (and outside
characters they interacted with, like Boston fire marshal Bart Shea).
Their exact words are used, line for line, making for a realistic and
kaleidoscopic reflection of reality at Dewey Square. Like Les Mis,
the production allows actual disparate populations to vicariously
reach audiences; whether people are merely entertained, or actually
have their eyes opened to human suffering, is another story.
Room For Wishing is honestly one of the realest, best-executed
monologues I've ever seen. Like Occupy itself, the roller coaster of
characters moved me to laugh and scream – often at the same time.
With that said, the success of Bryck's production – it's been sold
out night after night – is somewhat unsettling. Anecdotally,
it seems that people are quicker to wax nostalgic about Occupy than
they are to fight continuing injustice. It's kind of like grad students who hang
around coffee shops trading action tactics, but ultimately sit on their asses
more than they assess sit-ins. Or, in case you haven't caught the metaphor,
it's like seeing Les Mis and ignoring destitution in Times
apathy aside, it's obviously great that Bryck's play is popular.
While conservatives and other haters pegged Occupiers as a monolithic
herd of bourgeois bums – rich kids with smart phones rebelling
against daddy – that simply isn't the case. Here, Bryck channels a
diverse range of stories about what lured people to Dewey, thick Bay
State accents and all. The impersonations are inspired, from that of
Ali, a Gen-Kardashian co-ed drowning in debt, to Kwame, a 77-year-old
black man who Bryck plays brilliantly, to Mufasa, who hates Hot Topic
anarchists more than he hates fascists.
heart, Wishing is more than just an oral history as told
through select Occupiers. These tales could be from any corner of
America – a homeless woman detailing the horrors of the shelter
system; an unemployed disabled man; a mother in foreclosure with a
special needs child; the son of a heroin addict; a prostitute whose
cheekbone was recently shattered. On display is the full spectrum of
society, from expressions of peace and love to the “fights,
intoxication, and mental health issues” that Navy combat vet Doc
speaks of. There are also snapshots of some douchebags like Mark, a
self-described “moderate” and businessman passerby who feared
that a “weird revolution” loomed.
more people watching plays and documentaries – and reading books and taking classes –
about Occupy than are still organizing in its name? I don't really
know. But I do know that one of the movement's great achievements was
its knack for making people uncomfortable, and to get up in the
country's face. As the character Katie says, “We wouldn't have
drugs and violence on site if that were not reflective of drugs and
violence [in society].” She's right, and that's as much the case
today as it was a year ago; in other words, shit is still fucked up and bullshit. And
while Wishing vividly illustrates that struggle, I hope that
everyone who checks it gets that Bryck's narratives not only
represent real Occupy Boston people, but millions of others just like them.