Living on the Edge of a Race Riot

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, Downtown Race Riot

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

In the early autumn of 1976, a group of local thugs descended on African Americans in Washington Square Park, in New York’s Greenwich Village, killing one man and sending 13 others to the hospital. The thugs were not in an all-white mob, but one with a black and Hispanic member. The racially odd riot stunned New Yorkers.

That melee, in which six men were convicted of manslaughter, is the subject of Seth Zvi Rosenfeld’s new play, Downtown Race Riot, produced by the New Group, that opened at the Lunney Theater in the Pershing Square Signature Center on W. 42d. Street, New York, last night. In Rosenfeld’s story, a drug addicted 40ish single mom, Mary Shannon, always involved in some scheme to make money, does just about anything she can to keep her teenaged son Jimmy away from the riot, despite pleas from the rowdies, his buddies, to get him to join them. At the same time, Mary’s daughter, Joyce, sleeps with her African-American boyfriend, Marcel, for the first time to keep him away from the civil disturbance. Both women have little interest in the racial or political goals of the rioters; they just want the men in their lives to be safe.

The women, their men, and the friends of the men are quickly drawn into an internal struggle that causes all of them to discuss their own lives, and hopes and dreams, as the background to the riot. The family, and not the riot, that you never see, is the focus of the drama.

What should Jimmy do? He does not want to go to the riot and he makes a series of calls to get relatives of a man he knows is a target of the rioters to keep him off the streets. He calls the police and leaves an emotional message for a cop he knows. He gets a weapon. He tries to get his and Joyce’s friend Marcel to stay out of the riot even though Marcel wants to go badly. And yet, at the same time, Jimmy wants to go to keep his friends happy, be “one of the guys.”

In the middle of all this comes mom Mary’s sad story of a woman whose husband was deported and who invented Jimmy’s asthma, and did it so well that all of his life her son has believed he has asthma and even uses an inhaler. Mary is strung out on drugs, out of work and has no future except her children. As the troubled Jimmy ponders his fate, daughter Joyce announces that she is taking off with friends to go exploring in Europe and Mary is crushed.

The play personifies the seventies. It starts with seventies music. Mary is an obvious hippie with hippie clothes and attitude. Characters talk about how children eat pieces of colored wallpaper and get cancer. You see TV soap operas from the seventies and listen to characters talk about how in that era New York had a mixed racial and religious face and was a town with a shaky economy and high crime rate in the middle of a drug epidemic. There was chaos everywhere.

The play starts off very, very slowly as the actors build their characters. By the middle of it, you can finally see just how the people in the show are trying to avoid the troublesome street confrontation at all costs and get involved in numerous traumatic clashes with each other. As Mary says, you don’t want to hurt anybody or have anybody hurt you. Just to be in it is to risk your life. Once the audience sees this connection, a lot of subplots in the play fall into line and the play moves along at a much faster, and richer, pace.

What carries the play is not the script, weak in places, but the acting, particularly Chloe Sevigny as Mary, the mom. She dominates the play, whether shooting up with drugs, arguing with her kids, trying to be sexy or fighting off the rioters who have slipped into her apartment. She has an aching, heart breaking face at times, a Hollywood ingenue look at others. She is the drama’s centerpiece. David Levi, as her son Jimmy, is electric as the classic mixed up kid. He wants to do whatever his friends want to do, but not really. He also wants to protect his mom from drugs and realizes that he cannot. Marcel is played by Moise Morancy and he explains that while he is black, he is from Haiti. Since his arrival in New York, he has done nothing but fight with African Americans, whom he says do not understand him and often beat him up when he was a kid. He wants revenge. Others in the play include Christian DeMeo, Josh Pais, Sadie Scott and Daniel Sovich. They make up a strong ensemble and give life to the story.

The story in Downtown Race Riot changes. At first there is a lot of good natured humor, but as the tale unfolds the humor ends and tragedy sets in. There is an overwhelming feeling that while people may be discriminated against, killing them is not the answer. How does a family save itself from its own dysfunctions on the edge of a race riot? How do you reclaim your life after it? What did it do to you, or failed to do?

Part of the success of the play is the work of director Scott Elliott. He uses the huge, sprawling three room set by scenic director Derek McLane to keep the action close to the audience, that practically sits on top of the stage in the small theater. Elliott makes the action cohesive as it moves from room to room.

By the end of the story, that starts so slowly, you are pretty much captivated by the characters and remember the tension and turmoil of America in the mid ‘70s, as street riots still persisted and the Vietnam War was coming to a close.

You can’t remember that riot? It took place about 8 p.m. on September 8, 1976. About 25 young men rampaged through the New York City park battering African-Americans with bats and chains in a ten-minute assault. You don’t remember it because the front page headlines the next day were flooded with stories that yet another Arab-Israeli war might take place. The riot story disappeared quickly from the papers, too. This play, despite its problems, brings it back.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the New Group. Scenic Design: Derek McLane, Costumes: Clint Ramos, Lighting: Yael Lubetzky, Sound: M.L. Dogg, Fight Direction: UnkleDave’s Fight-House. The play runs through December 23.

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