On a late summer’s day in the South Bronx’s Barretto Point Park, children splash in fountains, families picnic on lush lawns, and muscular youths play basketball. It would seem idyllic were it not for the awesome stench. This park, which spans five acres, is bordered by a sewage treatment plant, a fertilizer factory, and a popular truck route. A beach tempts kiddies to paddle in the toxic East River, while the hillocks overlook Rikers Island and North Brother Island, the scene of a former typhoid hospital.
Verdant and noxious, joyous and disquieting, this park represents contradictions inherent in the present-day South Bronx. The Provenance of Beauty, a new piece from the Foundry, which begins performances on September 5, initiates audiences into some of the borough’s mysteries. A collaboration between the Foundry’s artistic director, Melanie Joseph, and poet Claudia Rankine, the play takes audiences on a most unusual bus trip, one that ignores typical tourist attractions and landmarks. On each journey, 46 audience members clamber onto a charter bus in East Harlem, cross the Willis Avenue Bridge, and begin the tour—pausing at sites like the park, a prison barge, and the newly hip SoBro area. As the bus rumbles on, recorded voices urge spectators to gaze at the surrounding landscape and its inhabitants: “Endurance, resilience, humanity,” they say, “should be something to look at.”
Joseph and Rankine decided to look at the Bronx two years ago. Having read Rankine’s book of imagistic essays, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric, Joseph contacted her in the summer of 2007 and commissioned a work exploring the dynamics of the city. Though Rankine had recently moved to California, she had spent her childhood in the Bronx. The two women visited the borough’s various neighborhoods and decided that the South Bronx had the most promise, thematically and logistically. Rankine, seated demurely on Barretto Point Park’s grass, explains, “It’s so concentrated, it has so much going on, and it is so close to the city.”
The South Bronx still bears the scars of a troubled past, yet also displays the triumphs of recent revitalization. Onetime centers of crime and tumult now teem with petite, shingled town houses, their driveways packed with potted plants and rosebushes. To discover the route the piece would take, Joseph and Rankine interviewed various citizens—a theater director, a sewage treatment worker, a small-business owner, an elderly housewife—about local history and points of interest. “Every bit of this tour came from somebody,” says Rankine. “We would never have known on our own to come to this park. [Grafitti artist] Nicer from the Tats Cru Collective took us here. He showed us the beach and the smell.”
After completing her research, Rankine transformed the documentary material into a lyrical meditation on community, worth, and representation. Having never before written for the theater, she composed countless drafts. Eventually, she melded the many interviews into a single voice, recorded by actors Randy Danson and Raúl Castillo, that embodies the South Bronx, much in the way the chorus of a Greek tragedy speaks for the city-state.
Horace, the Roman critic of Greek tragedy, praised art that delights and instructs, but Rankine has more ambitious goals for this project. As spectators travel on the bus and gaze out upon the South Bronx, Rankine wants them “to recognize that people just like them live there—though the economic world may be different, the aspirations and desires are the same.
“My commitment as a writer,” she says, “is the recognition and accommodation of human beings, one to the next.” Take that, Gray Line.