Can Edward Albee save Brooklyn’s Interfaith hospital? (Can theater change the world?)

"We do save lives"
“We do save lives”

“We do hope we stay open, because we do save lives,”  said the intake receptionist at Interfaith Hospital said. “We do serve a purpose.”

“Promises, nothing more. I am personally sick of promises,” an admissions nurse was saying a few minutes later and a few feet away, but she didn’t work for Interfaith. She was an actress reciting a line from Edward Albee’s 1959 play “The Death of Bessie Smith,” which hasn’t been performed in New York City since its Broadway debut in 1968.  The playwright gave New Brooklyn Theater special permission to stage it in the hospital in hopes that it will help save Interfaith, slated to be shut down on March 7th.


When has theater ever made a concrete and direct difference for a specific issue like this?

Artistic director of New Brooklyn Jonathan Solari:

Steven Bogart: Augusto Boal’s work (Theater of the Oppressed)

Frank Episale:  Justice (1910) by John Galsworthy inspired/motivated Winston Churchill to seek penal reform in the UK. Fortune and Men’s Eyes (1967) by John Herbert led to the creation of The Fortune Society, which helps ex-convicts find jobs.

Ryan Brinson: ‏‪ I think theater more opens up a dialogue about specific issues. Angels in America, the Prop 8 play, etc.

Hollis ‏:‪ I think 8 the play brought the issue of marriage equality to the forefront and showed how inequality is harmful to all persons

Karen Yates: Waiting For Lefty. It started being performed all over the country by community groups as a response to labor politics.

Jules Odendahl-James: Blank and Jensen’s The Exonerated has been cited as being influential in Illinois Governor Ryan’s blanket commutations of death penalties.

Meron Langsner: ‏During the AIDS crisis theatre reviews were some of the only ways the issue got any press at all.

Jacob Juntunen: ‏‪ The Normal Heart review (1985) in The Christian Science monitor is the first time it mentions HIV/AIDS. (“Mainstream Theatre, Mass Media, and the 1985 Premiere of The Normal Heart: Negotiating Forces Between Emergent and Dominant Ideologies“)

Kristoffer Diaz ‏: ‪Cornerstone Theater  and Teatro Campesinoo

Shaun Michael ‏‪ The global movement known as V-Day that fights to end violence against women was born from Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues

Darren Johnston ‏‪The White House invited ‪the Tectonic Theater to the signing of the Matthew Shepherd Hate Crimes bill because of their work.

Jill Woodward ‏: While I cannot think of huge worldwide direct differences, I’ve seen plays change individual minds. That’s enough for me.

Gina Ferranti ‏‪ Theater changes the world one person at a time. If you can move someone to feel, think, empathize etc..ripples of change


“The Death of Bessie Smith” may not at first glance seem to fit with, say, “Waiting for Lefty.”   Albee’s plays are more “elusive” — the word critic Dan Sullivan used when, in 1968, he reviewed Bessie Smith, on a double bill with The American Dream, for the New York Times. That wasn’t meant as a put-down. The review was a rave: “…it deserves the support of anybody who has ever rapped Broadway theater for its high prices and stupid plays.  Here is what we have been praying for, folks: contemporary work of substance, mounted with care and offered for a reasonable price ($5.50 top).” The producers (which included Albee himself) “have made their move; the next one is ours.” The play ran for 12 performances.

Nearly half a century  later, this young professional company is performing the play for even cheaper (free) in a room off the lobby of the hospital through January 19. This is not an arbitrary date – that was the date that Interfaith, a bankrupt 230-bed hospital in Bedford-Stuyvesant whose patients are primarily the elderly, mentally ill, and the HIV positive, was scheduled to close before its reprieve.

New Update: The show will run, for a second time, from February 28 to March 9, 2013

Artistic director Jonathan Solari founded New Brooklyn in June, 2012 with the aim of rescuing the old crumbling Slave Theater, at 1215 Fulton Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and turning it into a new performing arts center. Nearly every show they’ve done in the 18 months they’ve been around has sold out, and so has this one.

“The Death of Bessie Smith” takes place in a whites-only hospital in Memphis on the day in 1937 that popular blues singer Bessie Smith was fatally injured in  a car crash. Albee was inspired by the story that Smith died because a whites-only hospital refused to admit her, but this was later disproven.  Despite the title, Bessie Smith is only an off-stage character in Albee’s one-act play, the bulk of which focuses on an unnamed nurse, a mean, bitter but flirtatious woman who berates her bigoted father, bosses around a black orderly in the hospital, teases and taunts a medical intern who is her suitor, and bores an admittance nurse at another hospital. It’s harsh, tense, startling, funny.

It is only at the searing end that the ostensible subject of the play is re-enacted.

“This is a play about race, class and health,” an audience member said approvingly at the end of a recent performance, in what would normally have been called a talkback. Other theatergoers nodded, expressed their appreciation. She wasn’t finished: “We can’t say ‘it was a wonderful play,’ and then go home to our abode. We have to save Interfaith.”  As the cast sat in the front silently, the audience members discussed what to do.


Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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