BWW Review: A CITY OF REFUGE Offers Communion Amidst Crisis at The Center At West Park

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BWW Review: A CITY OF REFUGE Offers Communion Amidst Crisis at The Center At West Park
Ylfa Edelstein, Luke Edward Smith

On Friday, July 3, 1992, NYPD officer Michael O'Keefe fatally shot Jose "Kiko" Garcia, a 23-year old father of two originally from the Dominican Republic. What began as a peaceful protest march led by a City Councilman Guillermo Linares escalated over the course of the holiday weekend, erupting into a full-blown riot across a 40-square block area in northern Manhattan. While some citizens protested, others sought refuge.

Inspired by these true events, A City of Refuge from Primitive Grace Theatre Ensemble brings the audience squarely to church, a haven-as-melting-pot that reaches its boiling point and beyond. As a motley crew of community members collectively tries to absorb the shockwaves of what's happening outside (the Washington Heights riots), they must individually bear witness to each other, as well as to their own fears, biases, and the need for personal strength amidst relentless violence, shared vulnerability, and dwindling resources.

The cast features The Priest (Luke Edward Smith as Father Barrington), The Cop (Gregg Prosser as Conor Foley), The Lay Leader (Ylfa Edelstein as Kathleen Dougherty), The Parishioner (Wilton Guzman as Octavio Matos), The Stranger (Miah Kane as Jesse "Exile" Clay), and The Orphan (Hailey Marmolejo as Emma Keane). Smith tries to coalesce the clan of misfits with a warm but warped charisma; Edelstein gives a shattering performance as the altruistic yet agonized caregiving congregant facing a harrowing situation.

The surprise-infused linear script provides real-time urgency to the action-packed story (Evan Cuyler-Louison, Writer/Director). It's an engaging historical hybrid, a welcome departure not only from traditional dialogue-dense theatre but also from environmental theatre that is susceptible to being undermined by form over content.

The performance space (The Center at West Park, a former church on New York's Upper West Side) features rows of pews that face a massive illuminated stained glass window. WWJD? The seating configuration in the "church" puts the audience into close-but-not-claustrophobic proximity to the chaos and conflict that gird the heart-pounding 90-minute production.

BWW Review: A CITY OF REFUGE Offers Communion Amidst Crisis at The Center At West Park
Hailey Marmolejo

A pull-down screen and an onstage "vintage" television set provide era-specific on-the-scene news updates from the riots as well as press conferences from Mayor David Dinkins. "This moment," conveys the playbill, "reflected the tenor of a nation still brimming from decades of strife, and illuminated an immigrant population, both vulnerable and strong, for whom we must look no further than our present to find comparable analogs, of which there is no shortage."

Ambient sound effects (police sirens approaching, crowds shouting) connect us to the tension just outside the church doors. During the performance I attended, actual city sirens outside amplified the authenticity.

A City of Refuge defies being categorized as merely a high-energy, high-emotion survivor story performed in these low-tolerance times. We see Father Barrington offer up meaningful but meager rations: crackers, sardines, fruit, and water. Even as the sirens wail just beyond the church doors, sustenance and tolerance converge.

Photos: David Zayas, Jr.

Tickets (through 12/22) available here.

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