The Provenance of Beauty: A South Bronx Travelogue

Gentrification is good; gentrification is bad.  Gentrifiers bring resources to neglected communities; gentrifiers displace longtime residents.  A gentrified neighborhood is better / worse off than it was before.

There is no resolution on this issue, and there probably never will be. There’s also no shortage of opinions. The latest is from New York’s The Foundry Theatre, whose newest project entitled The Provenance of Beauty cleverly merges theater, city, and social commentary. It takes as subject matter and setting one of the city’s most storied and notorious districts: the South Bronx.

The Foundry’s production relies on a staging technique that is simple and innovative: the play takes place entirely on a bus, originating and terminating on 121st St. in East Harlem then moving through the Hunt’s Point and Mott Haven sections of The Bronx. One performer (Sarah Nina Hayon) rides with the audience; she assumes a number of characters to contribute live vocal anecdotes to compliment a chorus of recorded voices – all penned by poet Claudia Rankine and delivered to the audience via personal headsets. The narrative is composed of historic vignettes and anecdotes about specific sites along the route, and Rankine’s pointed commentary about gentrification (and the audience’s role in it) largely corresponds with specific public spaces the bus encounters. One memorable episode concerns the conflicting aspirations of the Giuliani administration and neighborhood residents regarding the creation of Barretto Point Park on the East River [site of the Floating Pool -ed.]

What is most exhiliarating about the roving stage is the way normally unnoticed urban characters and happenings become a part of the performance – a fresh attempt to realize the conceit of city as theater and theater as city. The mother with a stroller waiting at a crosswalk, the well-kept and not-so-well-kept buildings – even the mundane pause at a red light – all contribute to the action unfolding on the headsets. The effect prompts a sharper awareness of the rich fabric of associations we experience every day in the city.

This awareness, combined with the distance introduced by the headsets and tinted windows of the tourbus, is unnerving, and I found myself wishing that the recorded narrative would have relied on this subtle tension to prompt audience reflection. Instead, the script at times resorts to the kind of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t accusations common to the discourse on gentrification. It seems to assume voyeurism on the part of the audience, as if to say you can never know the South Bronx because you’re not from here – how dare you try?

To be sure, this provocation may be intrinsic to Rankine’s theatrical intentions. But it seems to overlook what makes the South Bronx unique: namely, an ability to repeatedly reinvent itself and thrive. As a friend pointed out afterward, what ultimately makes Provenance compelling is that the South Bronx itself is so compelling: the architecture, the music, the food – above all, the streetlife. Surely the borough that nurtured Kool Herc, Edgar Allan Poe and La Lupe (whose theater and home show up on the tour) has the capacity to integrate newcomers without losing the character that has made it special and continues to inspire creativity of all kinds.

Ultimately, viewers must decide for themselves which bits of narrative resonate and which grate; in short, the performance demands that each viewer arrive at a relationship with the South Bronx on her own terms. If The Foundry’s innovative conception of city-theater prompts this internal reflection, it would be despite its reliance on those aspects of gentrification discourse that we’ve heard before. But it could well foster new imaginative modes of engagement with the built environment and the social relations it structures – and point a way forward for the theater, for the South Bronx, and for New York.

Performances of Provenance of Beauty are at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. on weekends between September 5th  and October 25th, 2009. or 866.811.4111. Tickets: $35.

Read more reviews of this performance:

+ The Village Voice

+ The Daily News


As with all review and opinion pieces posted on Urban Omnibus, the views expressed are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.

Travis Eby is a recent graduate of the Yale School of Architecture.  He loves his stoop in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.

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