America’s Classic Soup Kitchen Thrives

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, Grand Concourse



Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.


Heidi Schreck’s new play, Grand Concourse, was promoted as a play about a Bronx, New York soup kitchen in the 1970s, at a time when the city’ image was lower than ever and the number of homeless and downtrodden, the inhabitants of every soup kitchen in American history, soared.

Grand Concourse, later modernized, is the historic story of a soup kitchen located on the Bronx and the men and women who run it. The play opened last week at Playwrights Horizon Theater, in New York. It is not really a play about the homeless and hungry, although they are backstage in many scenes. It is, instead, the story of the 39 year old nun who runs the operation, struggling with her tight budgets and wavering faith, an old man fighting to maintain his wobbly place in society, a Latino security guard who is in love with two women and Emma, a quite cheerful college girl who arrive one afternoon to help out, free. They are all well intentioned and the soup kitchen is the symbolic setting for their efforts to help the poor. The four become the center of many storms.

The star of the play, though, is the soup kitchen, with its warehouse full of food, stoves, cabinets, vats, sinks, pots and pans. The only kitchen larger than this one has to the one at Caesar’s Palace Hotel, in Las Vegas. This glistening kitchen in an old building is the entire set and it has everything. You could feed the entire Marine Corps out of this kitchen.

Grand Concourse is a very funny play that evolves into an intense drama as the story of the nun and her co-workers unfolds. Schreck has done a fine job of creating very real and quite vivid characters that run her kitchen. We all wonder what the volunteers in soup kitchens are like, and here they are. The play could easily be developed into a half hour network television sitcom without much extra labor by Ms. Schreck. It has that great idea, the historic soup kitchen, and the battles of the homeless. It has finely etched characters. It has a basic storyline that can be changed from week to week. And, best of all, thanks to Ms. Schreck’s sharp sense of humor, it has considerable laughter.

Grand Concourse is a well written look at the latest in a long line of soup kitchens that have saved the lives of millions of hungry Americans over the years and the people who run them. We see in this play that the kitchen workers all have their twisting little stories. There is Oscar, who gets caught by his fiancée Lydia as he two times her with a kitchen romance with the edgy Emma. Lydia is furious. So is Emma. At the same time, Emma gets a job for Frog, the heavy set, bellowing, mentally changed and completely lovable kitchen volunteer. Amid all of this, the chief, Shelley, is overwhelmed by personal problems that threaten to wash over her life like a tragic tidal wave.

The historic beauty of the play is that it celebrates the soup kitchen, society’s helping hand to the poor and homeless for hundreds of years. The one on stage in the Bronx is just the latest in a line of thousands of soup kitchens across the world, especially in America. The soup kitchen started back in the 1780s in Britain in a charitable movement led by Sir Benjamin Thompson. Some 60,000 people throughout England were fed soup, or soup and bread, each day. The United States had “alms houses’ in that era, homes for the poor, but it is uncertain they had soup kitchens, too. The kitchens seemed to arrive on American soil in the mid-1800’s along with the horde of Irish immigrants who fled here after the famine there. The soup kitchens then grew in the U.S. and thrived whenever there was an economic downturn. They were run by city and state governments, civic organizations and churches and often managed by volunteers.

The kitchens became legend in the Great Depression (gangster Al Capone even ran one in Chicago). They served hundreds of thousands of people soup and bread for nearly twenty years. They thrived again in the recent recession that began in 2008.

There are still nearly 60,000 homeless people in New York City today. They utilize the city’s 800 soup kitchens. In 2014, the number of people using soup kitchens jumped after the federal government cut funds for foods stamps (over 1.5 million New Yorkers used food stamps).

Director Kip Fagan has done a wonderful job with Grand Concourse. The director lets Schreck’s beautiful language captivate the audience while helping her to set up a series of sub plots and a dramatic finale. Fagan gets striking performances from the actors. Quincy Tyler Bernstine is a deep and confused Shelley, the nun, who does all she can to keep the overworked staff happy and maintain her sanity. Ismenia Mendes is a tightly wound, frantic Emma, working her butt off to keep her mental problems at bay, constantly searching the world for love and romance. Bobby Moreno is the witty and suave Oscar, the security guard who is the Bronx love machine. Finally, there is Lee Wilkof as Frog, the happy go lucky mentally challenged man who continually steals the show, especially when he is hiding out from CIA pursuers.

Grand Concourse is a well written play that casts a spotlight on the brave souls who manage the nation’s soup kitchens, and have for more than 150 years, giving up much of their lives to help others. Here, though, they do it in a cauldron of trouble, and still do it well.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by Playwrights Horizon Theater. Set: Rachel Hauck, Costumes: Jessica Pabst, Lighting: Matt Frey, Sound: Leah Gelpe. The show runs through November 30.



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