Tuesday, October 30, 2012

After the Storm

Along the East River at  78 Street last night, at abut 8:30 pm, water had crested over the riverside walkways.

 I returned about noon  today to find a much quieter scene. 

On the upper east  and west sides of Manhattan today, there was the amiable, outgoing atmosphere that I associate with a day after a snowstorm in New York City. People step out of their apartments, put on their friendliest faces, and enthusiastically become part of a scene that is much larger then themselves. Downtown and in New Jersey, things are much worse.

Fifty blocks south of me, my friend has no power. Classes at Rutgers-Newark, where I teach, have been cancelled through Friday. Power is out in Newark; one of my students there cut short an e-mail because she wanted to preserve the juice that remained on her computer.

It will be days sorting out this disaster and much longer learning its lessons. But here are two of then.

One, government makes a difference. Comparisons between hurricanes Sandy and Katrina are bound to be inexact, but here in New York we were blessed with effective municipal and state government and a more than competent president. The same cannot be said for the poor people of New Orleans. This is one more proof,  if any was needed, that we cannot leave health, safety and our collective welfare to the free market. Just and effective government is a necessity.

Two, we are in an era when global warming causes violent weather patterns that put us all at risk. In the recent past, natural disasters, activism and independent journalism pushed this issue to the top of the political agenda. Since then, it has all but vanished. Neither the Obama nor the Romney campaigns has had much to say about it. We need to get back to it.

Global warming is not something to be ignored because it is politically inconvenient. Look no further than downtown Manhattan if you want to see its consequences.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Hard TImes

The 1863 Draft Riots, an explosion of protest, race riot and street warfare, are the ugliest upheaval in the history of New York City. Explanations of the episode have changed over time, shifting from economics (Irish workers rioted because they feared competition for jobs from African Americans) to a greater emphasis on white racism. It is the genius of Hard Times, a musical about the riots written by Larry Kirwan, that it grasps both of these explanations in ways that illuminate the hardships suffered by African and Irish Americans in Civil War New York.

The play takes shape in the story of a group of New Yorkers--Protestant and Catholic, Irish and native born, black and white--who seek refuge from the Draft Riots by hiding out in a bar owned by an African American woman, the widow of an Irishman, in the Five Points. The intersections of their lives, rivalries, loves, and animosities illuminate both the characters' individuality and the wrenching conflicts of their time.

Kirwan, whose music with Black 47 has used traditional Irish music, rock and rap to convey the Irish past and present, uses dramatic scenes and the music of Stephen Foster and minstrel shows to tell his story. The choice of Foster, who appears as a character in the play, and the related theme of blackface minstrelsy, are inspired. Foster's story illuminates the blend of vigor and sentimentality that defined American popular music in the mid-nineteenth centry, while minstrelsy helps Kirwan address both the racism and nativism of the time. Kirwan also depicts Foster as tormented by a love affair with a man who turns up in the bar, but this sub theme does more to suggest a reason for Foster's melancholy that it helps to explain his times.

Over the course of Hard Times, Kirwan explores the hardships that scarred both Irish and African Americans----neighbors, rivals and lovers, trapped in a hellish situation. At the same time, he shows how the Irish and African American meeting in song and dance--in the Five Points--produced great American art forms such as tap dance and ragtime. The result is an ending that is sobering yet rousing.

Hard Times was performed at The Cell on 23rd Street in Manhattan as part of the 1stIrish theater festival. Its run is over, but Hard Times surely deserves a revival at another theater soon.