Operating theater: Play inside hospital is an unlikely success

The Brooklyn Paper
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Interfaith Medical Center has long served as a place to get a physical or have your tonsils taken out, but recently it has taken on a second life as a theater.

Since early January, the New Brooklyn Theater has been staging an on-site rendition of Edward Albee’s 1959 play “The Death of Bessie Smith” inside the bankrupt Bedford-Stuyvesant hospital’s yellowing conference room, and the production has become an unlikely hit.

The local troupe initially planned a modest two-week run of the once-act play — which tells the story of blues singer Bessie Smith’s death after being refused admission to an all-white hospital — in an effort to raise awareness of the hospital’s precarious future and the impact its closure could have on the community.

But the free show, which sees accomplished actors performing in front of sets drawn on cardboard and battling the nearby Long Island Rail Road to be heard, has enjoyed national press attention and packed houses, and the play is now in its seventh week, with more planned if the donations continue to flow in.

Will the show’s critical success translate into political action? We caught up with Jeff Strabone, the New Brooklyn Theater’s board chairman, to find out.

Ruth Brown: Are your audience members typically aware of the situation at Interfaith coming in?

Jeff Strabone: Some come for the hospital, some for Albee, some because it sounds like a hot ticket. Everyone leaves with a heightened awareness of the politics of health in New York City.

RB: Have any actually been inspired to join the cause?

JS: We think so. I don’t know how many people go from the audience to the coalition meetings — there is no way to measure some things. But we’re satisfied that we’ve raised consciousness about hospitals and inequality and delivery. And also, all of the elected officials who represent Bed-Stuy have spoken to our audiences. So they have been reminded that saving Interfaith is a community priority.

RB: Do hospital staff and patients come to see the show?

JS: Every audience varies. Some have been heavy with nurses and hospital workers, others have been Bed-Stuy people. We’ve had people come from as far away as the Bronx and New Jersey just because they’ve heard it was happening. Some people from other hospital catchment areas hearing about what is happening at Interfaith may be all the more ready to get involved when their hospital is threatened. So if nothing else, we’ve put lots of people on alert that this is a big issue for this city.

RB: What are some of the unique challenges you have encountered staging a play in a hospital?

JS: It’s a challenge for the actors to perform there. They enter the performance space from either the waiting room or the cafeteria. So they’re standing there in the waiting room while people are watching “Wheel of Fortune” and talking on cellphones and crying about their loved ones, and then they have to be ready to be back in the scene. In the final scene, the Intern and the Orderly characters re-enter with bloody outfits and I’ve been in the waiting room and seen people gasp and say “They’ve got blood on them!” And we tell them, “No, no they’re actors!” There has been some unintentional comedy, but our actors are really troopers and they’re committed to the project.

“The Death of Bessie Smith” at Interfaith Medical Center (1545 Atlantic Ave. at Albany Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, March 7 at 7:30 pm, March at 2 pm and 7:30 pm, March 9 at 2 pm. Free. Reservations recommended.

Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018
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