THE TEENAGERS HANGING out on the corner of Lafayette and Jersey streets this week might not be up to what you expect. Chances are, they’re part of the theater company Downtown Art, which is performin g its latest work, Bowery Wars Part I, beginning April 30.
The most recent installment of the organization’s Inheritance Series, which included last year’s The Waistmaker’s Opera and House of Dreams, will evoke the history of Lower East Side gangs on the neighborhood’s own streets. For the performance’s first act, audience members will follow the silent actors down narrow sidewalks and across intersections, listening to the action and sound score on individual MP3 players; act two will take place in an empty lot on East 3rd Street.
In Bowery Wars, the year is 1903 and New York’s most powerful gangs, the Eastmans and the Five Pointers, are fighting for control of the Bowery, its saloons, dance halls and gambling dens. Tammany Hall is reorganized and attempting to take over City Hall after being exposed for graft and corruption two years prior. "New York was a crazy town filled with greed during the age of the sweatshops," says Bowery’s artistic director and playwright Ryan Gilliam. "With all of these immigrants trying to survive, New York was in an upheaval. This time period between the Civil War and 1910 is vague for so many people, and I’ve always been so interested in it," she says of her inspiration for the show.
Gilliam, who also designed the costumes, took six months to write the historical—and sometimes romantic— script. She worked together with composer Michael Hickey, who wrote the performance’s original music. The plot follows the fictional love story of two immigrants trying to make it in the big city. They’re named, of course, Romeo and Juliet, and are played by 13-year-old Tati Jorio and 15-year-old Jarrett Jung.
The outdoors, in-the-streets performance is an exciting shift from traditional theater. "Our company is homeless," says Gilliam of her 19-member team, which rehearses at East 4th Street’s WOW Café. "Instead of renting a new space, I figured, let’s perform on the streets." The innovative venue poses challenges for the show’s performers, however. "We’ve been mistaken for mimes," says performer Lily Abedin. "People will ask us if we’re doing a form of tai-chi." India Kotis, 13, admits she’s afraid of getting lost; the other actors laugh at the idea of her performing her solo two blocks away.
The troupe is relying heavily on social media and postcards to spread word of the upcoming shows, where 40 to 50 audience members are expected for each performance. "Tourists will go to Broadway," says Gilliam, who aims to draw a small, local crowd. Some people the performers know will be attending are the homeless men from the shelter adjacent to the East 3rd lot. Having watched months of rehearsals through the windows, "the people there really got to know us," says Gilliam. "The men even yelled away an ice cream truck that parked in front of the lot during practice!"
>>BOWERY WARS PART I Begins April 30. For information, visit downtownart.org.