Little island NYC Free: Cannabis, Ali Stroker.

Baba Israel asked us to light up an imaginary joint, before he and his band rapped about the history and heroes of marijuana.  Ali Stroker marveled at how we were all creating community, before she belted her favorite popular anthems and Broadway tunes. At the two separate, 45-minute concerts, back-to-back on the second night of the month-long NYC Free festival on Little Island, both very different performers expressed their gratitude for being back in front of a live audience. “This is the first time I’m performing in New York City since before the pandemic,” Stroker said, to cheers.

New Yorkers are surely ready for a full-on musical about marijuana,  but we’ll have to chill out a bit. “Cannabis” was introduced by Kristen Marting, the artistic director of HERE Arts Center, as “a sneak preview concert of what’s going to be a fully immersive production, with dancers, text and video” that will open at HERE as part of the Prototype Festival in January, 2022.

Baba Israel’s own introduction to his show was a bit more intense, a cross between an incantation and a speech at a political rally.  In a growly, in-your-face New York accent that reminded me improbably of Curtis Sliwa, he asked “anyone here who loves Mary Jane” to “close your eyes and remember your first puff puff pass. It might have been smooth and in the groove, it might have been awkward, but it happens. And for those of you who are wary of her love, we honor that she does not work for everybody. And that’s okay. But tonight is for anyone who carries a felony on their back for growing, using or distributing a flower that buds in a female form. And for anyone who is still locked up. And tonight is for the parents, the elders. the artists and all of you who find reverie and relief in this plant. And tonight is for the activists, the heroes who took the chances, the risk takers. And to celebrate that cannabis is now legal in our city.”

A point worth underscoring: This year New York State legalized the use of up to three grams of marijuana for recreational use by people age 21 and older. (It’s been legal in California for medicinal purposes since 1996)

What followed was a concert that fused jazz and hip hop and pop In ways that were sometimes thrilling,  The lyrics — often more clever than clear (I eagerly await those “texts” in January) —  traced the history of the plant through the centuries and the continents until it’s brought to America: “Indian hemp arrives on ships/ Cannabis tinctures for white American lips.” From history, they turned to heroes – prominent among them, the singer and horn player Louis Armstrong, who was a legendary smoker of marijuana. He was extensively profiled in the show and, in an undeniable highlight of the evening, Grace  Galu imitated his singing style.

Then they followed up with their jazzy rendition of The Beatles “I get high with a little help from my friends.”

“Cannabis” was greatly entertaining musically. It would be unfair to assess its substance based on a concert version that’s billed as a sneak preview. My hope is that the final theater piece will reflect the complexity of the story it’s telling. This plant that’s taken such firm root in our culture and in our politics was once a central element of 60s counterculture, but it’s now a corporate product in a growing multi-billion dollar industry.

 Ali Stroker wheeled on stage, lifting both hands up in greeting, and in triumph. She was wearing a yellow dress similar to the one she wore when she won a Tony for her role as Ado Annie in “Oklahoma!” the first actress who uses a wheelchair to receive this honor. “I started singing when I was seven years old on the Jersey Shore,” she told us – in a neighborhood production of Annie. She was hooked. “For me, when I sing there are no boundaries.” — the way there are, she implies, when she’s not singing. That’s why singing “is not a hobby. It’s something I have to do.”
She told us at the outset she would be singing her favorite songs. She didn’t identify any of them, but she didn’t really have to.  They were familiar tunes, some practically anthems — Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5, Carole King’s Natural Woman – others Broadway favorites: Never Never Land from Peter Pan, Burn from Hamilton,  and songs from her two Broadway shows — I Cain’t Say No from Oklahoma, and Mama Who Bore Me from Spring Awakening.
This last song she both sang and signed in American Sign Language, side by side with the interpreter.  She talked about her having learned to sign for the Deaf West production of the show, called ASL the world’s most beautiful language,  and declared: “Accessibility means having interpreters at every event.” There is no question she takes her role as advocate seriously. The thought occurred to me: Shouldn’t she have pushed for captioning at every event too? Audio description? (There are apps for each of these, eager for content.)
Still, what other theater artist has created more awareness? Stroker is an important presence. She is also a charming and talented entertainer. My hope is that she takes on a bit more of an adventurous repertoire.

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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