Theater for the New City to Stage New Play SKIP TO MY LOU

By: Jan. 08, 2016

Theater for the New City Executive Director Crystal Field is presenting "Skip to My Lou," Steve Romagnoli's new play inspired by the true story of a Congolese pygmy put on exhibit in the Bronx Zoo.

The play, directed by S. C. Lucier, is running at TNC, downtown's four-venue theater complex, at 155 First Ave., Feb. 17-28, Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 3 p.m. Seats are $18 by clicking tickets or going to the Theater for the New City website.

The show was inspired by the story of Ota Benga, a Congolese pygmy exhibited alongside an orangutan in the Bronx Zoo in 1906, one of the more tragic and unusual episodes in New York City history.

Romagnoli, who teaches literature at Fordham University, is donating his portion box office receipts to the Bedford Hills Women's Maximum Security Prison College Program, where he is also a professor.

He also taught for more than 20 years at high schools, homeless shelters, substance abuse and incarcerated programs for "at-risk" youth age 17 - 21 in New York City Board of Education alternative programs.

"I always tried to engage my 'audience' with something that I knew would shock, perplex or in some way relate to students who, for the most part, suffered some sort of trauma in their lives," he said. "Ota Benga always got their attention."

While Ota Benga's story is likely to get and hold audiences' attention, the reaction to his exhibition in the zoo with wildlife is a particularly unnerving element of the story.

"I guess one of the things that most struck me by Ota's story is how, at the time, it was not considered shocking or immoral," Romagnoli said of this figure who hovers over the show like a spirit in the characters' lives.

After the mayor of New York City denied the request of black clergy to meet with him, The New York Times weighed in, but not with the outrage one might expect.

"He's probably enjoying himself as well as he could anywhere in this country," the Times wrote. "And it is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation he is suffering."

Romagnoli said that "this incredible lack of empathy was the original inspiration for my play."

"Skip to My Lou" doesn't tell Ota Benga's story in the first person but rather it is his spirit that prominently haunts the characters, providing the spark and explosive climax of the play.

A character named Yo-Yo was taken from Africa by an American in what Romagnoli calls "a kind of parallel track of exploitation and racism masked as benevolence."

"While Yo-Yo is not the reincarnation of Ota, you could say she is a kind of reconfiguration of him," he added.

The play follows a young couple in love - he's white and she's black - who stumbles into the lair of Simon, a Machiavellian cynic and sociopath married to Yo-Yo, the young woman from Africa.

As the couples become acquainted, they discuss everything from genital mutilation to altruism, affirmative action to the nature of evil and the suffering of God, all under the haunting specter of Ota Benga.

Simon tests the young lovers' bond with a wide range of ploys as philosophical conversation that, Romagnoli said, "turns sinister as secrets are revealed and mayhem is unleashed."

Romagnoli, who teaches a class in Bedford Hills prison combining ethics, literature and creative writing, sees echoes of Benga's injustice in today's mass incarceration.

"My students are absolutely amazing. Of course, it's always terribly sad each time I enter the walls and then leave at the end of class," he said. "America's prison system is both cruel and immoral and I believe that one day people will look back at it with the same incredulity and disgust as we look at what was done to Ota Benga in his day."

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