Housing Crisis

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Alternating Currents
Written by Adam Kraar
Directed by Kareem Fahmy
Presented by Working Theater at Urban Stages
April 26-May 26, 2018
 
New York City is as dense with community histories as the word community is with potential meanings: geographical (which in NYC, for instance, could as easily be the borough, the neighborhood, the block, or the building), intellectual, labor-related, ethnic, and racial, to name a few. Adam Kraar's world-premiere play Alternating Currents, centered in the Electchester housing complex in Flushing, Queens, touches on these multifarious meanings of community as it spotlights what one character calls "a social experiment," one of which many New Yorkers may be unaware. Alternating Currents is presented by Working Theater, and the mission of the company, founded in 1985, is to tell stories for and about working people. Its four year-old Five Boroughs/One City Initiative draws on the experiences of local communities as a way towards fostering inter-borough dialogue. In the case of Alternating Currents, an important part of its development included conversations with residents of its specific settings, Electchester and Pomonok Houses in Flushing, Queens, as well as with members both of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3 and of the wider Flushing community. In order to engage with diverse audiences across the city, the play debuted at IBEW Local 3 in Queens, runs from May 1-20 at Urban Stages in Manhattan, and then travels to the Bronx Museum of the Arts on May 16, Staten Island's Snug Harbor Cultural Center from May 22-24, and the RiseBoro Youth Center in Brooklyn on May 26.
 

Electchester was built to provide affordable housing and a strong community for the city's electrical workers, and construction began in 1949 under the aegis of labor leader Harry Van Arsdale, who during his life served as a leader of IBEW Local 3 and other labor councils, and was involved in organizing NYC's taxi drivers and hospital workers. Electchester spans 38 buildings and houses thousands, though the population is far less exclusively union members than it once was. The protagonists of Alternating Currents, union electricians Luke (Jason Bowen) and Elena (Liba Vaynberg), leave behind singlehood for marriage and their leaking studio apartment for a co-op in Electchester, where the term "co-op" carries more weight than usual. Electchester features sundry clubs, societies, and committees, and pitching in is expected (at least if one wants to be considered for a parking spot). Elena's colleague Sharonda (Rheaume Crenshaw) warns that, in her opinion, too much volunteering is expected, too little privacy exists, and that the whole thing is akin to a cult; and indeed, when Elena and Luke move there anyway, their new neighbors do indeed treat them to a bit of an overwhelming welcome. Sharonda also condemns the Pomonok Houses, adjacent to Electchester, as a locus of shootings, drugs, and guns. Luke, however, has family there, and, eventually, Elena embraces the idea of Electchester as a family too completely for Luke, who, as a black man, has a different experience of their new life.

Alternating Currents takes an admirably complex view of the communities that it examines. Eletchester is not, in fact, a utopia, and not just because Luke and Elena can hear everything that their upstairs neighbors do, including literally tap dancing. "Not like it used to be" becomes a refrain throughout the play, one that evokes current residents being less willing to embrace collectivity at same time as the past that it nostalgically alludes to is inextricable from racism and sexism. The play points out, for example, that gender imbalances continue within the union, especially in leadership positions, and the differences in experience between Elena and Luke testify that racial boundaries have not been entirely erased, even as the fact that Elena's Jewishness seems to be a non-issue demonstrates the historical contingency of such tensions, with once Othered identities such as Jewish, Irish, and Italian now seen as "white." Luke, in contrast to Elena, remains in a liminal position. He feels as if he is constantly performing in Electchester, unable to speak up, for instance, if someone says something he finds offensive, and feeling as if he is somehow betraying people such as his Aunt Rosetta and cousin Sean (Rheaume Crenshaw) who live in the Pomonok Houses. Sharonda mentions red-tailed hawks in the same sentence as she does Pomonok's shootings, drugs, and gangs, and Luke's dream that he is one of those hawks, "expected" to attack a black child, effectively symbolizes the difficulty of his divided connections. In addition to racial divisions, the divide between Electchester and the Pomonok Houses also emblematizes the way in which the systems in place keep working people divided against each other for the benefit of the wealthy classes.

Sean's experiences in the play both echo and counterbalance Luke's. Through Elena, Sean discovers that he enjoys cosmic bowling in addition to dancing on the subway, but even as Sean crosses the divides between Pomonok and Electchester and even in this place of camaraderie among the workers, one man leaves in protest of the presence of "low-grade minorities" who have ruined how things "used to be." Even Sal (Robert Arcaro), a sort of elder statesman of Electchester and one of the strongest advocates for and drivers of the community that it creates (or can create) turns out to have some behavioral and attitudinal skeletons in the closet of his past. However, none of this means, in the play's view, that we should give up on "social experiments" like Electchester. Sal also both represents and articulates the idea that things can and do change, and that the most important question is what we do now with what has been built. While problems and strains between individuals and between individuals and the community persist, Jerry (Brian Sgambati), who acts as a narrator, tells the audience that Electchester saved him, and Sal implores that we not forget so easily that people once died to sustain the conditions and community that allowed something such as Electchester to exist. In conversation with Sal, Elena posits that we need to do terrifying things to effect change; thus, improvement may be slow and painful, but that doesn't mean that it is not possible. Jerry raises the assertion that if you want to know people, you must know their dreams; and that requires dialogue, the kind of dialogue that Alternating Currents encourages and contributes to both onstage and off.

The production boasts great set and lighting design by David Esler and Scott Bolman, respectively, making clever use of elements such as scaffolding, conduits, and spools. Vaynberg and Bowen exhibit great chemistry together in addition to communicating their characters' conflicted personal journeys. Arcaro perfectly embodies the type of assertive, experienced working man that one could picture falling into conversation with at the end of the day in one of the working-class bars that still dot the city, having managed so far to survive gentrification; and Crenshaw's Sean anticipates the less partitioned future that Elena and Luke talk about their children one day living in.

Alternating Currents perceptively explores the messy realities of living and laboring in NYC, and, by extension, the United States today. Labor, especially organized labor, has been under coordinated assault in the U.S. for decades, with ever-worsening worker exploitation the result, and the Supreme Court appears set to deal a major blow to unions in Janus v. AFSCME. At the same time that unions represent an opportunity for the marginalized to unite in fighting against enforced inequality, incidents such as the one this past week in which a man who is allegedly a stagehand (and so probably a union member) was just recorded on video directing a racist tirade against a City University of New York student on the Long Island Railroad reveal lingering issues within organized labor as well. Kraar and Working Theater ably capture these kinds of contradictions and nuances with empathy and humor, and Alternating Currents proves illuminating in more ways than one.

Signing off in solidarity, as two members of the Professional Staff Congress -- City University of New York. - Leah Richards and John Ziegler

Photo Credit: P. Kevin O'Leary

Dr. Richards is an English professor in NYC, and spends her free time raising three cats and smashing the patriarchy. When not writing reviews, Dr. Ziegler spends a lot of his time being an Assistant Professor of English in NYC and playing guitar in a death metal band.