The average theater-goer may not find Grand Concourse, a large boulevard spanning the Bronx, to be a source of dramatic inspiration. But as someone who’s been riding the Bx1 bus all her life, I can point out a few treasures:
1) The Pregones Theater, a fantastic theatre company just a few blocks away that has recently teamed up with the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater,
2) The Bronx Supreme Criminal Court, where real life courtroom dramas play out five days a week, and
3) The Butternut Street Theatre at All Hallows High School, located on Grand Concourse and East 164th Street. It’s where seventeen-year-old me got serious with Shakespeare in the Drama Club’s production of The Winter’s Tale.
So when I heard that Playwrights Horizons was producing a play named after Grand Concourse, my interest was totally piqued. I wanted to know how playwright Heidi Schreck was going to utilize this underutilized setting. I was also desperately hoping that this wouldn’t be one of those narratives where the one white cipher character is forever changed by the other lively but troubled minority characters.
Fortunately, my fears were completely unfounded. Grand Concourse is as complex and captivating as its namesake. Set in a Bronx soup kitchen, the play follows Shelley (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), a veil-less nun who is questioning her faith–and is setting her one-minute prayers to the kitchen’s microwave timer. She’s assisted by Oscar (Bobby Moreno), an affable twenty-something who works at the soup kitchen, and is pestered by Frog (Lee Wilkof), a soup kitchen regular who sneaks carrots out of the refrigerator. Enter Emma (Ismenia Mendes), a nineteen-year-old college dropout who wants to start volunteering at the kitchen. Shelley takes Emma on, not knowing the devastating and life-changing consequences it will bring.
Heidi Schreck’s play is a breath of fresh air in contemporary theatre. Having the play set not only in the Bronx–but in a basement soup kitchen–allows for new actions to take place that wouldn’t occur in, say, a living room in a home in New England. The diverse cast also actually resembles New York City’s colorful population. Their diversity isn’t just interesting in terms of ethnicity and gender, though. The varied characters (a young woman, a young man, a nun, and a homeless man) allow for different relationships and conflicts to occur: ones that we don’t often see in a standard two couples/family living room drama. I found it particularly engaging to watch Shelley’s progression as she struggles with her identity, her religion, and her ability to forgive. Shelley’s difficult yet triumphant journey makes her the fiercest nun in theatre since Audra McDonald’s Mother Superior.
Grand Concourse’s other strength lies in its humor. The cast, directed by Kip Fagan, has excellent timing in bringing Schreck’s comedic moments to life. Grand Concourse’s ability to make the audience laugh further accentuates the poignancy of the play’s more serious moments. It shows that there’s plenty drama to be found in the Bronx–and some smiles, too.