Jackson Repertory Theatre
167 Tongues Strikes Theatrical Gold
May 7, 2010 / Jackson Heights / Queens Buzz. I just returned from experiencing something truly wonderful. I saw a play entitled 167 Tongues, which opens on May 7th and runs three weeks under the auspices of the Jackson Repertory Theatre at PS 69. There are only 99 seats available per night, and the play runs only six nights in total, so if you're interested in seeing this play I suggest buying your tickets online / early.
167 Tongues - Jackson Repertory Theatre
So let’s start at the beginning, which was Wednesday night when I arrived to watch the play. When I found they weren’t in costume I asked to return the following night as the final rehearsal was to be done in costume. But before I left I took several mental notes, which gave rise to consternation about what I was to experience the following evening.
Jackson Repertory Theatre
167 Tongues Strikes Theatrical Gold
Original Work Begins Its Run At PS 69
Continued I noticed that they were essentially performing the play in the foyer of PS 69 where the voting booths are placed during elections [this information was provided to me by a patron after I exited]. The ceilings weren’t very high [9 feet] and the seating was comprised of stainless steel folding chairs.
The next evening I arrived before 8 pm. During the course of my visit I was able to speak with both Alison Ostergard, the Jackson Repertory Theatre founder and Executive Director, and Ari Laura Kreith, the Artistic Director and creator of this project.
167 Tongues - In Jackson Heights
The idea of 167 Tongues originated out of the lore about Elmhurst Hospital. Elmhurst must be capable of communicating in nearly every language on the planet, because of the ethnic diversity of the community it serves [Queens USA]. Ari Laura Kreith moved into the Jackson Heights area about five years ago, and almost from the day she set foot here, the idea for this play began germinating in her mind.
Themes Are Relevant & Universal
Meanwhile, and separately, Alison Ostergard had arrived from Oregon. As time passed she wanted to connect with her new community [Jackson Heights] on a more meaningful level. As an actress and producer, she began to explore the possibility of connecting with the community through theater. In the process of her exploration, she found a real desire on the part of the Jackson Heights community to have professional theater performed locally. Hence in 2008, the Jackson Repertory Theatre [hereafter referred to as JRT] was born.
JHRT produced and performed its first show, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in 2008. This was followed by twin shows the following year [entitled No Solo Mio and Step Mother In A Sari]. In 2009, Ari [who had become the artistic director for the company following its first production in 2008] approached Alison with the idea for 167 Tongues and hence the work began. Ari rounded up multiple writers, four of whom she’d worked with in the past, and seven new ones. Together they collaboratively wrote 167 Tongues.
167 Tongues - Cast, Crew & Scenes
The lights dimmed, the street sounds began, and onto the stage the cast of characters arrived like pedestrians walking the streets on a weekday morning, going about their appointed rounds. Overhead, we hear the sounds of the subway as it passes by. The sounds abate and the first vignette begins.
There are 29 actors, who play 37 roles in 25 scenes in the play 167 Tongues. These scenes are reality-based [but fictitious] vignettes of the lives of many Jackson Heights residents.
Jackson Repertory Theatre Delves Into Ethnicities
The scenes in the play explore a wide range of complex human relationships, which are complicated even further with gender, age, sexual preference, race and cultural origination. Here’s just a sampling: an immigrant mother with gay son, an educated and gallivanting Indian brother and dutiful sister who minds the store, a middle-aged Russian man who contemplates his relationship with his grandfather, a Dominican woman and her Asian lover, a Columbian girl and her American lover, an Indian Chinese take-out delivery boy and his handicapped American GI veteran customer, a new arrival from Minnesota who’s a stranger in his own country in Jackson Heights, mothers to other mothers, and if I’m not mistaken, even ghosts to the living. As you can tell by counting, I haven’t come close to describing all of the 25 delicious vignettes.
The format makes for a generally lively and engaging show. One never loses interest, as these vignettes just keep flowing across the stage. And because they’re so current and relevant it’s impossible to avoid being drawn in, like eavesdropping on an intimate and engaging personal conversation on the subway.
Jackson Repertory Theatre - Cast
The actors and actresses for this show come from near and far. The cast was chosen to reflect the diversity of the community they were meant to portray. Hence we saw Chinese / Korean, Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Columbian, Dominican, multi-European and the like. Credit must be given to this cast [and the director for selecting them], because they did an excellent job of reflecting the accents and assuming the mannerisms of the ethnicities they portrayed. The subtle nuances lent additional support to the veracities conveyed in the stories.
167 Tongues Explores Modern, Queens-relevant Themes
Like the scenes, the stories touched upon a wide range of universal themes. Youthful pregnancies, the responsibilities of motherhood, cross gender and same gender love, marriage and extra-marital affairs, public perception, education and status were among the themes. And underlying it all there was the gentle exploration of what it means to be human; regardless of race, color, creed and gender.
The script writers and actors / actresses successfully collaborated to portray poignant situations which elicited empathetic emotions in some of the scenes. On at least two occasions I felt emotions welling up inside of me. In keeping with the American male tradition, I hid them. But I did feel something. Something real.
Near the end of the show, the authors begin weaving the seeming disparate scenes into a collective communal whole. There’s one such scene at the Elmhurst Hospital, from whence part of the inspiration for this play began. A doctor tries to explain to a Muslim woman that everyone who arrives at the hospital is afraid, in pain, and seeking help. He informs her that they have to learn how to ask, “where is your pain?” in 167 different languages.
In the final scenes of the show, we see that many of the characters are in pain. Pain emanating from their hearts and souls, not from illnesses or gun shot wounds. And while it's a pain that is far less tangible, it is no less real. The pain one feels from being rejected by a lover, a son, a mother, or husband. Pain from feelings of loneliness and / or alienation. Pain it seems nobody else understands. It's pain that's magnified by others who think they know what we feel because they live with us or next to us ... but they really don't know. They don't know because they don't understand the language of our hearts and souls.
Early on in the show a Nepali woman tells us, “it is better to see once, than to hear many times”. In keeping with that ancient wisdom, I recommend seeing this show, rather than to hear about it many times, as it will surely be discussed. It’s well written, well acted and totally engaging, especially to anyone who lives in Jackson Heights, Elmhurst or Queens. And, in a number of parts, it's also quite humorous.
Jackson Repertory Theatre - At PS 69
See our Queens Events calendar for the dates and times of 167 Tongues [theater]. The show is playing at PS 69 on 77th Street and 37th Avenue in Jackson Heights for three weekends starting on May 7th. Tickets may be purchased in advance at jacksonrep.org where you will also be able to learn more about the cast and crew who worked on the production.
Jackson Heights Neighborhood - Related Links
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