A Close Call, and Then a Curtain Call

The man burst into the hospital, frantic and breathing hard. The nurse on duty looked at him in irritation. “I got a woman outside in my car, and she’s been hurt badly,” he shouted. “She’s bleeding; there’s blood all over.”

He had already visited one emergency room, where he had been told to sit down and wait his turn. So he left and drove to another hospital. This time, he was going to make a scene. His screaming was so loud it attracted an intern from the other room. But the nurse was unmoved. His shouting annoyed her — disgusted her, in fact. No, he’d have to wait.

It was already too late. In the car outside, sometime between departing the first hospital and arriving at the second, the woman had bled to death.

This incident played out in a New York City hospital earlier this year, though not in a typical emergency room. Instead, it was a scene in a play, The Death of Bessie Smith, which draws its plot from an apocryphal tale about the black blues singer, who died, as the story goes, after being denied care at a whites-only hospital in Memphis in 1937.

For three months earlier this year, the play was performed inside the first floor conference room of Interfaith Medical Center, a hospital in Bedford-Stuyvesant that filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and was expected to close by early 2014.

If Interfaith closed, tens of thousands of poor black residents of central Brooklyn, many on Medicare and Medicaid, would lose their neighborhood’s only hospital. According to Interfaith, it sees over 50,000 emergency department visits every year. Performing The Death of Bessie Smith at Interfaith was meant to draw attention to the hospital’s fate, and also to provide a scary vision of the future: delayed or nonexistent health care.

Edward Albee wrote The Death of Bessie Smith in 1959 as a comment on race relations and the injustices that rigid social institutions can wreak. The play had not been performed in New York City since its Broadway premiere in 1968, but Albee allowed it to open at Interfaith after he learned how it would be used. But could the play really help save a hospital?

Interfaith, which has almost 300 beds and provides emergency services and preventive care, is so important to Bed-Stuy in large part because the community is in a health professional shortage area, meaning there are not enough doctors to treat the area’s patients. If Interfaith closed, ambulances would have to travel several miles further to the nearest emergency room. “People talk about other [hospitals] just a mile or two away,” said Diane Porter, an Interfaith Medical Center trustee and an active proponent of keeping the hospital from closing. “But it’s not miles; it’s minutes.”

This is even more of a problem, said Public Advocate Letitia James, because Bedford-Stuyvesant “suffers from every health care indicator and disease you could possibly imagine.” A neighborhood health report in 2012 found that rates of HIV and AIDS, obesity, diabetes, and mental health hospitalizations were significantly higher in Bedford-Stuyvesant than in the rest of Brooklyn.

Furthermore, Interfaith is “more than a hospital,” said James, who has been fighting to save the medical center since she was a city councilwoman for Bedford-Stuyvesant. “It provides housing to the homeless. It’s a safe haven for individuals. It’s a spiritual place. And it’s a meeting place for the community.”

But Interfaith wasn’t the only endangered community hospital in Brooklyn — without state or federal funding help, Brookdale University and Long Island College hospitals were also slated to close or merge with other hospitals in 2014. The problems posed by hospital closings have become so bad in the last several years that then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio gathered protesters last July outside the midtown offices of the State University of New York, which operates Long Island College Hospital, to highlight the issue. After de Blasio refused to vacate the university’s premises, police arrested him, along with several other politicians and a very vocal community activist named Jeff Strabone.

The men were loaded into a white paddy wagon, where Strabone, who is tall, pale-skinned and bright-eyed, with a salt-and-pepper beard, wriggled out of his cuffs and snapped a photo of de Blasio wearing a “Save LICH” pin. They joked about being outlaws, though they seriously hoped the arrests would draw attention to the problem. Strabone, who normally wears a mischievous grin, worried about the hospital and thought he’d do whatever it took to keep it from closing.

In the fall of 2004, Strabone, who is an English professor at Connecticut College and a scholar of British Romanticism, was teaching an essay-writing course at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU when he met a theater student, Jonathan Solari, who deeply impressed him.

Solari, a dark-haired, well-read teenager from Florida, took Strabone’s class in the fall and then again in the spring. “Even though he was only 18 years old, I saw that he had a special power,” said Strabone, who is now 43.

In high school, Solari helped get his drama teacher reinstated after the teacher had been wrongly fired and the school’s production of Romeo and Juliet canceled; Solari talked students into doing the play at a local theater instead, and then produced, designed, and directed the production. “He’s just a prodigy,” said Strabone.

Strabone and Solari also hit it off as friends. “It’s incredible how much he and I have in common,” said Strabone, who wore a hoodie under a blazer as he drank coffee in a Cobble Hill café. Strabone looks youthful, despite the whites at his temples and in his beard; Solari sports similar facial hair, but darker and scruffier. Both men love Shakespeare. Strabone has seen every single Shakespeare play live, many of them with Solari.

“Temperamentally, both of us are an only child, and we have similar kinds of family dramas,” said Strabone. “It’s like we were separated at birth.”

The two stayed in touch even as Solari graduated, went on to direct his own shows, and moved to Belarus and the Czech Republic for a short time to get involved in dissident theater. In 2012, reunited back in New York City, the two men started a theater company in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where Solari lives part-time, which they called New Brooklyn Theater.

Initially, the goal of the company was to resurrect a historic theater in Bed-Stuy. Strabone served as chairman of the theater, Solari as artistic director, and together they put together several local productions while they worked on buying a space.

But when they heard about Interfaith closing, it became their singular focus. Strabone, involved in community activism since he was a teenager, had become obsessed with hospital closures while fighting for LICH. Solari, meanwhile, had been focused on creating tangible, practical change through theater since he returned from Europe. Solari had also recently helped direct an Edward Albee play, and he was hungry to do more.

Activist Jeff Strabone’s theater company has staged performances to help save Interface Medical Center. Photo by Meghan White

The two men have a private saying for the company: “It’s all one thing.” Which is to say, everything they want to do at New Brooklyn is related to what they’ve always believed in: that art can bring about real change. And so after conversations with Strabone about the hospital closures in Brooklyn, the idea came to Solari: New Brooklyn could perform The Death of Bessie Smith — a rarely performed Albee play about poor access to health care for the disadvantaged — inside Interfaith Medical Center. And maybe, just maybe, Solari said, the play could change things. Strabone thought the idea was “fucking genius.”

Strabone, who facetiously calls himself the “Minister of Information,” would be in charge of convincing politicians, the media, and the community to come to the show. Solari, the “Minister of Culture,” would direct the production in a way that highlighted the similar health care problems faced by modern-day Brooklyn and 1930s Memphis. When the original production of the play was reviewed in 1961, the New York Times wrote that Albee was “not concerned only with Bessie's tragedy; he uses it to reveal the tragedy of an environment that allows such things to occur.”

“What’s most terrifying about Albee’s play is that it’s timeless,” said Solari.

When the two men approached Interfaith about doing the play, they were directed to Diane Porter, the trustee, to get permission. Porter, a strong-willed and practical woman with kind, tired eyes, had been working long hours to save the hospital, and she happened to be the exact right person to ask.

Porter had also done theater, back when she attended Purdue University in the early 1960s — one of just six black women in a student body of 19,000. When Porter auditioned for one play, the only role she could get was playing a maid who got slapped in the performance. During rehearsals she was slapped lightly. But on opening night, she recalls, “they whomped me across the face.”

Porter also had strong and deep ties to Interfaith, having started there as a volunteer in the mid-1980s, at the height of the crack epidemic. As a volunteer, her job was to rub the bellies of low-birth-weight babies who had been abandoned by their mothers and now lay in Saran-wrapped incubators.

“They looked like little Cornish hens with hats on,” she remembered. “And they were flailing around because they were withdrawing from addiction. That was a very powerful thing for me, to see what the hospital was going through.”

When Solari and Strabone showed up at Interfaith to meet Porter, she told them they couldn’t meet inside her office: it was being occupied at the time by a four-year-old boy whose mother was getting treatment at the hospital and wouldn’t allow the boy to be released to his father. This kind of thing happens all the time at Interfaith, one of the few hospitals in the city that provides “safe haven” services, meaning parents can safely leave a child they can’t care for with a member of the staff. This time, though, the staff only had to take care of the boy for the day, providing him with coloring books and lunch and coaxing him to take a nap.

Instead, Porter directed the two men to the hospital’s first-floor conference room, which she had planned to offer up as a space for the performance. Generally used by the medical department for resident seminars or grand rounds, the room was ugly, with cheap medical diagrams, florescent lighting, and dun-colored floors and walls. But it was what Porter had. As hospitals went, it didn’t get more authentic. Strabone and Solari said they’d take it.

When the play opened on January 9, a frigid evening in central Brooklyn, it was with the blessing of Albee, who, though notorious for wielding tight editorial control, had given the young theater company the rights under three conditions: that it be performed free, that no actors be paid, and — this was key — that no critics come to see the show.

Because the actors wouldn’t be paid, Solari cast actors he knew. Some had won Obies, others were amateurs, and several came from out of town. He explained to all of them what was at stake for Interfaith.

With New Brooklyn’s tiny budget, the staging was simple. The diagrams on the walls were papered over with simple drawings that laid out the three sets used in the play. A few period props — a rotary phone, an old lamp, a gramophone — were added. The actors got ready in nearby examination rooms.

And yet, when the lights went down each night, the conference room was convincingly transformed into a segregated hospital from a bygone era. Isaac Suggs, an audience member at one of the early performances, said he was “blown out of the water after the screening,” in large part by the actors’ intense performances.

Suggs was particularly struck by the nurse who tells the man to wait as Bessie Smith bleeds to death out in his car. The nurse spends much of the rest of the play spitting out bitter, stomach-churningly racist lines, many of which she directs at a black orderly. In one scene she tells the orderly, who is trying his best not to upset her, that he is “just a genuine little ass-licker if I ever saw one.”

“I wish you wouldn’t make fun of me,” he says.

“The nurse did it so tough, I began to really hate her,” said Suggs, who works for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and also produces some theater on the side. “Damn, she really did a good job.”

The Death of Bessie Smith was supposed to run for only two weeks. But the performances immediately sold out, and they soon attracted politicians and the media, despite Albee’s stipulation. Meanwhile, the hospital was due to run out of funding on March 7 but had gotten a last-minute reprieve from the state. So New Brooklyn decided to extend the play through February 9.

Solari told the New York Times that they intended to continue performing “until either there is a permanent solution or the hospital shuts its lights off with us inside.” New Brooklyn requested Albee’s permission to pay the actors for the extended run, which he agreed to, and the New York State Nurses Association helped finance additional performances.

“We didn’t set out to be crusading in any way when we formed the company,” said Strabone. But doing the play had shown them the possibilities of activist theater, he said, and now they weren’t going to stop.

After the end of one particular weekend performance in February, the audience sat in stunned, almost uncomfortable silence. It hadn’t mattered that the performance had been interrupted by the sounds of patients talking outside, the TV in the lobby, and Long Island Rail Road trains rumbling by. The play’s power had overcome all that. Albee hadn’t been afraid to lace the show with racial epithets. And the play’s final scene is a brutal one: a white intern, who finds the dead Bessie Smith in the car, comes back on stage in a bloodied doctor coat, heaving. The vitriolic nurse, furious that the intern provided help, tells him he’ll be fired from the hospital, with his last ever patient “a dead nigger lady who sings.”

Performances of The Death of Bessie Smith, which has moments charged with raw racial enmity, have left some audiences stunned. Photo by Elizabeth Flock

It was Strabone, wearing a suit and striped shirt and striped socks, who finally broke the silence after the performance, taking to the stage to explain that both the play and Interfaith were examples of “racist health outcomes,” because if the hospital closed, as he said later, “lower-income African Americans would die.”

Then began a talkback, or discussion among the audience, Strabone, and that day’s guest: Bruce Richard, an executive vice president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, which calls itself the biggest local labor union in the world. Richard warned the audience that it wasn’t just Interfaith that was failing or bankrupt, but the entire New York health care system. Audience members peppered him with questions about an alternative. One man asked if these performances were really helping.

There were signs that they were. U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries and City Councilman Steve Levin, both of whom had participated in talkbacks, began more urgently voicing their opposition to the hospital’s closure. At the talkback with James, musician and actor Harry Belafonte had shown up and called on audience members to do something, saying that a changing Brooklyn “can’t change and leave the people behind.” The play — and with it, Interfaith’s impending closure — had been covered by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Vice, and the Huffington Post.

Meanwhile, there were other, bigger forces at work: the state of New York was about to get an $8 billion Medicaid waiver from the federal Department of Health and Human Services to help Brooklyn’s struggling hospitals, and it was possible some of it would go to Interfaith.

And so the hospital, along with labor leaders and politicians, asked New Brooklyn to extend the show once again. But the theater company needed money to do it — it cost about $12,000 a week to pay the seven cast members and two stage managers, print programs, and pay for liability insurance. Within days, Porter had come to the rescue, giving New Brooklyn $27,000 from a separate organization she runs, the Interfaith Medical Foundation.

The IM Foundation, which has given Interfaith more than $4 million in recent years, has as its mission to work for better health care for all of central Brooklyn. Porter said that even if Interfaith closed, the foundation would stick around, largely to “cause mayhem and confusion and drive people crazy.” The money the foundation gave to New Brooklyn would keep the show running for another two weeks.

“Has it” — the show — “helped soften the heart of the governor? We would like to say that,” said Porter. “It brought hundreds of people into Interfaith that would have otherwise sped past it on Atlantic Avenue. And when you talk to elected officials now about Interfaith, you don’t get that glazed-over look from them.”

The Death of Bessie Smith resumed performances to a packed house on February 28.

Inspired by the success at Interfaith, Strabone and Solari decided to plan more site-specific productions. They began putting together a production of the Henrik Ibsen play An Enemy of the People, about a poisoned stream and poisoned politics, at the site of a major chemical spill in Charleston, W. Va., that tainted the local water supply. The show, which will open in June, will also feature talkbacks with local leaders and will coincide with public hearings for proposed regulations on storing chemicals near water in the area. They are also planning an August production of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in Turkey, inside Istanbul’s historic Yedikule Gardens, which are threatened with demolition.

Meanwhile, several weeks after The Death of Bessie Smith was performed for the last time, Interfaith finally got a piece of very good news. The state of New York had decided it would keep Interfaith open until at least March 2015. During the year, it would put in tens of millions of dollars to help reform and stabilize the hospital, with the hope that Interfaith could operate on its own after that.

James believes New Brooklyn’s production was responsible for the state’s decision. “The attention as a result of the play, the media attention, was absolutely critical,” said James. “It really crystallized the issue and the impact it would have on the community.”

A week later, Long Island College Hospital got similar good news. The State University of New York, which operates LICH, had selected a buyer. The developer, Brooklyn Health Partners, promised to keep LICH a medium-sized medical center.

Strabone, who had fought so hard for both hospitals, immediately sent an email out to friends:

Interfaith: saved.
LICH: saved.

Hospitals 2, Bullshit 0.

Strabone typed the email with a giant cast on his hand. Days earlier, he had been running to catch a subway train before one of the final performances of The Death of Bessie Smith when the doors closed on his hand, rupturing an extensor tendon. Pushing through extraordinary pain, Strabone walked to the only emergency room in the area: Long Island College Hospital.

“I’m glad it’s open,” he said.

Elizabeth Flock is a freelance journalist and a graduate student at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She’s previously contributed to New York magazine, Forbes, U.S. News & World Report, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.

Meghan White is a freelance photographer and a graduate student at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

Also in this issue

Jewels from the Hinterland

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Q&A: Morgan Rogers of Edible Schoolyard NYC

At a public school in Gravesend, the kids grow their own lunch. By Anneliese Cooper and Christine Sanders.