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Review: Downtown Urban Arts Festival Celebrates 20 Years This June at Theatre Row

The Downtown Urban Arts Festival (DUAF) was founded in 2001.

While theater is meant to be enjoyed, it is also seen as a way to reflect the happenings of its time - the perspectives and opinions of those that are compelled to write about what they witness. Sometimes the experience is first-hand, while at other times it is almost experimental - calling attention to an idea, perhaps a situation not yet thoroughly digested or understood by the public. Within the confines of a theater, great things can happen as a result of a person's reaction to the great things, good or bad, that are already happening.

The Downtown Urban Arts Festival (DUAF) was founded in 2001 on this basis: to bring a collection of new American works that, in their words, "speaks to a whole generation whose lives defy categorizing along conventional lines." In its attempts to bring the spirit of real playwrights and characters to the stage, DUAF has been recognized as one of the world's best festivals for new works - a platform well known for the freedom it provides for artistic expression. Twenty years have passed since its founding, and what better way to celebrate such a pillar of New York theater than with the newly introduced 2022 lineup of new works - a month-long showcase of raw talent that has already undoubtedly left its mark on a New York audience.

Currently in performances at 42nd Street's Theatre Row, DUAF recently kicked off its twentieth anniversary with two incredible productions: Marcus Harmon's 20th Anniversary and Cris Eli Blak's The Hard Knock Lyfe. Two bold stories with widely different plots but similar in theme, both use the guise of the familiar - what the audience "believes" each to be about, if you will - but delve deeper into unexpected subplots. Told within the scope of the modern world and using the complexities of our reality as a backdrop, Harmon and Blak have written about more than a somber meeting of friends twenty years after September 11th - more than a rapper who receives some devastating news. Their stories are not just about what they mainly tell, but also about the personal implications that arise from them. Both audience and character alike navigate themes of homosexuality, loss, regret and stunted personal growth, beautifully embracing each's personal struggle as a reality no less real and significant than the events which led to them.Review: Downtown Urban Arts Festival Celebrates 20 Years This June at Theatre Row

20th Anniversary was a poignant start to the festival, bringing two firefighters together twenty years after the September 11th attacks. Set in a bar they both used to frequent, with hardly a set or frills of any kind surrounding them, all attention is simply on their words as they reminisce happier times. Witnesses to the destruction of that dreadful September day, they cannot speak of the past without mentioning their late friend Junior, who perished trying to save the lives of those trapped before the buildings fell. Junior is deeply missed, his memory everlasting and presence felt as much as it ever was. Yet this lifelong friendship is soon acknowledged as something much more, as it is revealed that one of the men was - and remains - in love with his departed friend.

Tormented by feelings of loss as well as those of lost love, the conversation takes a sudden turn and is no longer just about the universal sense of loss the world felt that day; it instead alludes to the idea of remembrance. How are we supposed to remember others, and be remembered ourselves? How much personal integrity do we have amidst a drastically changed reality? This firefighter, essentially and simply a man, suffers in front of a present-day audience while his mind remains forever in the past; we cannot help but suffer along with him. There are so many different levels of grief, and regardless of which we've experienced for ourselves, we are nevertheless forced to make some sort of decision in the end. We either bask in anger and loss, or spend the rest of our lives trying to be something, someone better.

In a world that is drastically changing, forcing us to be more resilient than ever, Harmon compels his audience to not only acknowledge the pain of that day, but also how, regardless of who we are, we all essentially feel the same way. If his characters are unafraid to reveal who they truly are, so too, is it our responsibility to help make sure their stories aren't overlooked, but embraced as beautiful. Although brief, 20th Anniversary is a poignant, beautifully written play that pays homage to our world, and the beautiful ways love, in any of its forms, can still be found in it.

Following Harmon's play was Cris Eli Blak's The Hard Knock Lyfe, which tells of a famous rapper who is diagnosed with HIV. Whereas Harmon's story is about embracing the truth, Blak's character is afraid of what his diagnosis implies. Although it is not revealed how the virus was contracted, the implications are there and immediately refuted by someone who has built himself up to be strong, self sufficient and an overall force to be reckoned with. He can't possibly have HIV, because people like him don't get HIV; he can't have it because of what that means.

Hearing his fate read to him in a cold, sterile hospital room and as the play progresses, he slowly begins to move past his denial and take stock of his life. As in Harmon's story, this man understands that he cannot change the past, relevant to both his actions and beliefs about the world; he must instead force himself forward to make himself better than he was before. His talent will make him remembered by the world, but his personal acts will make him an idol to those who should be most important to him.

This new reality he has been thrown into brings with it an awe-inspiring call to action - an enthusiasm to use the time he has left to take his life and mold it into something different - a personal recognition that is more than just his image among his community, among the fans that idolize him. It is moreso a personal struggle that now comes to fruition when he not only accepts that he is going to die, but also that his success is just a guise to cover a troubled relationship with his estranged daughter, and most importantly, with himself. The Hard Knock Lyfe is a beautiful journey into the life of a man who must acknowledge the fact that he will die sooner than he should, but that the life he has remaining is still so, so valuable. No matter the time we have, we are here, and with that brings a world of possibility.

Kudos must go to all those involved in the production of both 20th Anniversary and The Hard Knock Lyfe. Actors Marcos Luis, Hartley Erickson, Jovel Roystan, Jehiny Rodriguez, Abel Santiago and Kara Green brought these two stories to such life, paving the way for their successors. 20th Anniversary was directed and written by Marcus Harmon, and The Hard Knock Lyfe was directed by Christine Sloan Stoddard.

Even though this review only covers DUAF's opening two performances, there is much more to look forward to. The Downtown Urban Arts Festival began performances at Theatre Row (located at 410 West 42nd Street) on June 1st, and will continue thru June 25th. Tickets to the festival are $20, while those for B-Boy Blues are $25. They can be purchased by visiting either www.duafnyc.com or theatrerow.org; the upcoming lineup of plays can also be found there. Please support a wonderfully talented group of playwrights by visiting Theatre Row for your next night out at the theater this month!



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From This Author - Kristen Morale