Sunday, September 14, 2008


Yesterday, we had our last rehearsal of our two week developmental residency at Abrons Arts Center in the Lower East Side.  We made some great discoveries in our time there and I look forward to having the images of the seven wonderful actresses who have been involved in this first phase of development percolating in my mind as I set forth to craft the script.  

As I was thinking about things today, I wanted to remind myself of why this tiny sliver of history, almost 100 years old, is so relevant today.  A search through current blogs, news sites and You Tube will answer that question. I'll be collecting modern sources over the coming weeks but in the meantime, I read this entry today on the blog Wonkette; it was posted back in April about the food crisis and trends of 2008.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Tenement Museum: Jennifer's Visit

These are Jennifer's wonderful words about her experience at the museum:

My first thought upon entering the tenements was how incredibly small they were. I've been living in New York for three years now, and I'm used to small living conditions - but I was quite astounded at how many people were living in those crammed apartments. I wondered how my sense of self would develop in those cramped conditions: never having privacy and constantly being seen and heard by those around me. Would I like the sense of community? Or would I be constantly exhausted because of it? It seems that the poorer you are, the more at the mercy of the elements you are - the more wealth, the more insulated and therefore the more removed. Being poor in those tenements meant being at the mercy of life and all its elements - you are forced to give up your boundaries: personal, spatial and emotional.

What worlds blossomed inside of them in reaction to the harsh working conditions, cramped living arrangements? I am sure it was a small sweet world hiding in the twenty layers of wallpaper, in the cracked floorboards and coal dusted windows, a world that when bent, when folded unto itself, meeting itself again in a warm embrace allows for possibility in the small places that bed and give permission.

The tour also made me realize how a riot could easily emerge from this cramped, tough existence - with over two thousand people living on a small city block, unrest would be commonplace and it probably wouldn't take much to incite people to action.

It also made me think about my great grandfather, Solomon Moses, who came to the States when he was 16 years old, completely alone and not speaking a word of English - how those tenements were populated by people just like him and how I am not that far removed from his story and ultimately all of those who lived in the tenements. I think it's important for all of us to remember that we are a country of immigrants and need to be more tolerant of those trying to seek a better life here in America.

This reminds me of the ending quote in Don Lee's wonderful book, Country of Origin:
As they passed under the Golden Gate Bridge, Lisa imagined what her mother must have been feeling right then, seeing the United States for the very first time. A land where all was possible, where truth prevailed, goodness was rewarded, and beauty could be found in the meeting of outcasts. Oh, what a sight, Lisa marveled.

We are orphans, all of us, she thought. And this is our home.

- Jennifer Moses, Cast Member

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Tenement Museum: Katy's Visit

From Katy:

I felt that I was intruding on the homes of the characters in our play and on the characters in my family's stories, my not-so-distant ancestors, some of whom overlap with our fictitious characters.  As we've said in rehearsal, the hardest part of the project sometimes is to shed my 2008 sensibilities and imagine experiencing real hunger, to let go of my kvetching about my current housing crisis and picture myself in the housing crisis that was the LES in that era.  I felt connected by blood to the people in the pictures, Abe and Fanny and Jenny, not just because of my Eastern-European Jewish blood, but because we were breathing their air and we are now attempting to tell their story, which is a presumptuous undertaking.  I want to be as honest in their name as I possibly can.

- Katy Rubin, Cast Member

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Tenement Museum: Sonja's Visit

As a cast, we went to visit the amazing Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side on Sunday, Sept. 7.  It was an eye-opening experience.  I invited the cast to share their thoughts and experiences and I encourage you, my faithful reader, to both read their words and to visit the museum when you can!

The Tenement Museum was fascinating!  I'm really looking forward to checking out the other tours. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to stand in the reconstructed apartments and take a step back in time and really get a sense of what life, this hard, hard life, was like for these people.  The story about the three sons who slept with their heads on the sofa and their feet on chairs, seeing the living room that doubled as a sewing factory, the fact that these residents had no electricity or running water or toilets, that 2,000 people coexisted on one block! -- these images really stuck with me.  Also, one of the big lessons I took away was looking at the conditions then from the perspective of today.  While I may be aware that sweatshops still exist in the world today, I was shocked to learn that there are sweatshops still in that very neighborhood and that the majority of the clothes are shipped overseas.  And also, that the sweatshop conditions in other countries today could be just as bad as they were in the U.S. over a hundred years ago, that we have actually made very little progress.  This made a strong impression on me and the kind of consumer I want to be and the importance of really stopping to think just what went into making that shirt or that pair of pants that I get on sale.  It was less about statistics and more about the personal, that's what really made an impact on me.

- Sonja Sweeney, Cast Member

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Recipe for Food Riot

For the past week, my time has been more focused on writing and assembling the script, so research has slowed down a bit.  However, I did make time to read a great paper, "War Prosperity and Hunger: The New York Food Riots of 1917" by William Frieburger which gave a wide angle view of the food riots and also filled in some important details about the riots that occurred in Williamsburg and Brownsville, Brooklyn.  

His descriptions were notably more violent than other sources I've found.  It called attention to the fact that these were desperate women whose only goal was to feed their children.  In a discussion with the cast yesterday, we reminded ourselves that nearly 100 years ago, the word "housewife" had a markedly different definition and connotation.  Women used it with pride. The men were responsible for working and bringing in an income, but the women managed that money, turning it into food, clothing, shelter and if they could, savings.  It was their utmost responsibility that their families were fed.  So one can start to understand why in Brooklyn, women took to the street in droves, some wielding torches, to attack and loot pushcarts.

Yesterday, before I left rehearsal, I realized I needed to know a little bit more about Ida Harris, who was one of the spokespeople of these riots.  Not sure I would find anything, I googled "Ida Harris, nyc, food riots" and thanks to Google Books, found a brilliant book called "A Thousand Years Over A Hot Stove: A History of American Women Told Through Food Recipes and Remembrances" by Laura Schenone.  Much of what I read was information I already knew but there were still some details to be found, for example, Mrs. Ida Harris was married to a watchmaker.

But what was really so amazing was the discovery of new first-hand testimony.  Hearing the story through the words of these women has been the most emotional and fulfilling part of this journey.  It was in Brownsville, Brooklyn where a woman tried to negotiate with a peddler after rising prices left her without enough money for food.  

She pleaded with him:  
"I'll give you all I have, but I've got to have the onions."
He refused.

In anger, frustration and desperation, she put her shoulder to the cart and tipped it over.  Hundreds of women followed her lead.

Can you blame them?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Walking Tour

Yesterday was day one of rehearsal for the new project.  We started by going on a tour of the Lower East Side, led by yours truly.  I wanted to be able to see first-hand some of the locations mentioned in my research and I wanted to share my research with the actors in a meaningful and active way, vs. sitting around a table with me talking at them.

As you can see by this photo, the actors were well-prepared for this tour with shades & iced coffee.  I wonder what the equivalent would have been for a morning stroll nearly 100 years ago....a parasol?

The amazing and intriguing thing about New York City and particularly the Lower East Side is that there are so many layers of history and once you train your eye to see into the past, all sorts of things make themselves available.  We met at Grand and Essex St. and made our way over to Orchard Street where we could walk past Guss Pickles and The Tenement Museum.  Orchard Street is mentioned many times in the newspaper articles and scholarly papers that I've read.  We then turned onto Rivington which was known for its pushcarts back in 1917.  Today, both streets are dotted with sleek, expensive restaurants and chic boutiques.  It's a startling contrast with the architecture and feel of the neighborhood.  

Finally, we made our way up East Broadway, where many buildings are still labeled with signs in Hebrew and Yiddish.  We approached the Forward Building where, on February 20, 1917, fifty women gathered to discuss the impending crisis of food prices.  They moved across the street to Rutgers Square (now Straus Sq.) to make speeches, where the crowd grew to 1,000.  Someone suggested marching to City Hall to speak to the Mayor and, led by a Mrs. Ida Harris and the known anarchist Marie Gantz, 300 to 400 of the women marched down East Broadway
 and the Bowery to City Hall.

It was an unexpectedly thrilling feeling to be standing there in that very spot, imagining the lives, needs and wants of women in the early 20th century.  To think that, if born in another time, we could have been them.  To think that at that moment, were were sharing the same ground.
Standing in Rutgers Square