In September, 1976, at least 20 young men charged into Washington Square Park and swung bats, chains and pipes at any African-Americans and Latinos they found there, as they shouted racial epithets. A man named Marcus Mota – a 22-year-old student from the Dominican Republic who was playing volleyball – was killed; at least 13 others were injured. Most of the attackers were teenagers as young as 14, and almost all of them lived in the Village, long a center of bohemian culture. One of the attackers was himself black, another Latino.
This bewildering incident seems a good subject for a play, and it makes sense that Seth Zvi Rosenfeld would want to write about it.
A native New Yorker, a teenager himself during the rough-and-tumble 1970s, Rosenfeld has focused in such plays as “Servy N Bernice 4Ever” and “Handball” on the kind of gritty, hip urban terrain most identified these days with Stephen Adly Guirgis; in fact, Rosenfeld most recently wrote several episodes of “The Get Down,” the TV series about 1970s New York hip-hop culture that Guirgis co-created.
But Rosenfeld chooses to dramatize this actual event indirectly, placing all the action in a rundown Greenwich Village railroad flat before the riot takes place, with several characters aiming to participate in it later that day. The result feels like a missed opportunity. “Downtown Race Riot,” produced by The New Group at the Signature Center and directed by Scott Elliot, is largely a disappointment — undercooked in the first half, then overheated at the end. Still, Rosenfeld’s script does offer some precisely observed character and period details, helped along by the cluttered post-hippie set by Derek McLane and the subtly spot-on 70s costumes by Clint Ramos. The seven-member cast includes several compelling performances, especially that by Chloë Sevigny as Mary Shannon.
Mary lives in the apartment with her teenage son Jimmy, nicknamed Pnut (David Levi), a high school dropout, and her slightly older daughter Joyce (Sadie Scott), who is supposed to be a lesbian, but has the hots for Pnut’s best friend Marcel “Massive” Baptiste (Moise Morancy), a neighborhood kid who immigrated as a toddler from Haiti. Massive is one of the four visitors to the apartment over the course of the play. Two others are teenagers from the neighborhood: Tommy-Sick (Cristian DeMeo), a streetwise Italian, recently served time in jail, his crime unspecified; Jay 114 (Daniel Sovich), shares Massive’s interest (and Rosenfeld’s) in graffiti and comic books. The two Italians are intent on going to the riot, as is Massive. Pnut doesn’t want to do go, but his friends are trying to pressure him to do so. The reasons given for the riot are vague and uninteresting – something to do with a local mobster, and resentment of outsiders. Massive is the only character with a clear motive: He wants to be seen as part of the neighborhood, not an interloper like the other members of his race.
Since the actual riot was the inspiration for Rosenfeld’s play and (not incidentally) for its title, the sketchiness of these details is not a minor flaw. One could uncharitably accuse the play of name-dropping the event to draw in an audience.
More charitably, one can view “Downtown Race Riot,” at its best, as character studies of the kinds of street-hardened people who lived in the Village in the 1970’s – not all artists or free thinkers by any means – and as a metaphor for the breakdown in the city as a whole at the time. This was the era of overwhelming crime and pending financial insolvency, summed up by the famous Daily News headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” after President Gerald Ford refused to bail out New York, which was heading for bankruptcy. It was a city that many New Yorkers believed worth saving.
Seen in this light, the character of Mary is a complicated sign of those times, and Sevigny gives a nuanced performance as a loving and neglectful mother, one moment offering sage, non-judgmental advice from her hard-earned experience, the next nodding off after her heroin fix. The fourth visitor to her apartment is Bob Gilman (Josh Pais), a lawyer with a penchant towards cocaine whom Mary has literally seduced into helping her sue the city for the lead paint in her (city-owned) apartment. She has coached Pnut to testify that he used to eat paint chips, and to behave as if they caused lasting damage. It is, we sense, just the latest of her scams, and Bob just the latest of her paramours. But there seems a genuine feeling of mutual love and protectiveness between Mary and both her son and her son’s best friend (It may be no coincidence that both Levi and Morancy also give stand-out performances.) They feel that she is worth saving; she feels that they are worth saving. We feel the same – for her, for them, and for the city Mary Shanahan is trying to bamboozle.
Downtown Race Riot
The New Group at Signature
Written by Seth Zvi Rosenfeld
Directed by Scott Elliott
Scenic Design by Derek McLane Costume Design by Clint Ramos Lighting Design by Yael Lubetzky Sound Design M.L. Dogg Fight Direction UnkleDave’s Fight-House
Cast: Cristian DeMeo as Tommy-Sick, David Levi as Jimmy “Pnut” Shannon, Moise Morancy as Marcel “Massive” Baptiste, Josh Pais, Sadie Scott as Joyce Shannon, Chloë Sevigny as Mary Shannon and Daniel Sovich as Jay 114.
Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $32 (rush) – $127
Downtown Race Riot is scheduled to run through December 23, 2017