Wednesday, October 24, 2007

JHTM (Jackson Heights: The Musical)

by Havovi Cooper
Havovi Cooper, originally from Pakistan, is a 25 year-old Graduate Student of Journalism at Columbia University. Her focus is broadcast journalism but here is a print story (about 'Jackson Heights: The Musical') she filed for her 'beat area,' Jackson Heights.

Carol from Cleveland moved to New York City and decided to settle down in Jackson Heights because she could not afford the sky-rocketing rents in Manhattan. But Carol did not feel at home in Jackson Heights. She was often overwhelmed by the diversity of the area. It was hard for her to believe how the news stand around the corner of 37th Avenue sold newspapers from all over the world but not from her hometown of Ohio. And just as she began to wonder why she had left good old Ohio, Mr. Jackson Heights jumped to her rescue. He offered to be her tour-guide showing her the many attractions of Jackson Heights and its vibrant community.

This is not a real life story but it could very well be; this is Jackson Heights: The musical, an off-off Broadway production, now playing for a week, at the Jackson Heights Jewish Center. The musical aims at showcasing the history, diversity and the warmth of the community of Jackson Heights.

Mr. Jackson Heights who in real life lives in Astoria, is played by Ricardo Perez Gonzalez, a former theater student at New York University. Carol, the leading lady is played by 33-year- old Bieje Chapman. Chapman moved from Kentucky in the south, to Bay Ridge in Brooklyn. She said this musical speaks to some of her experiences in adjusting to life in New York City.

" I felt like a fish out of water when I moved to Bay Ridge. Things are different here. Like the school's have numbers instead of names," said Chapman.
The musical was commissioned by the office of Councilwoman Helen Sears, who wanted this to be a tribute to Jackson Heights.

"Jackson Heights is the jewel of Queens. It is a unique community, but often all you hear about is the crowds and the traffic. This musical takes in the sheer brilliance of life here and it does not hide the flaws," said Sears.

Sears approached the president of the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights, Steve Knobel, a well-known member of the community, to put up a play. Knobel, turned to Paul Enger, a long-time Jackson Heights resident and a former employee of CBS News, who had written plays in the past. Enger came up with a stage play which highlighted the diversity of Jackson Heights and its main attractions.

But whereas diversity was one of the main themes of the play, on the opening night the audience were a pale reflection of the Jackson Heights melting pot. Few in the audience appeared to be from the Indian, Chinese, and Latino communities which ,combined, make up almost half the population of Jackson Heights.

Thomas Scaringelli one of the organizers of the musical offered an explanation for the demographics represented in the audience.

"Most of the people who bought the tickets first were people who come to the Jewish Center often and knew about the play," said Scaringelli.

But Elliot Bassman, a former Columbia University graduate, and an artist whose murals often brighten the walls of the Jewish Center offered a different explanation for the lack of diversity in the audience.

"There is a lot of talk about diversity all over town but every block in Jackson Heights has people of it's own kind who are culturally different and sometimes they isolate themselves. They may view such events as exclusive, and not inclusive," said Bassman.

Bassman also thought that in an effort to be politically correct much of the content of the musical was so toned-down that it was appropriate for children.

"The content was successful, yet generically positive and did not encompass the neighborhood's problems. It was a safe and clean cut version of Jackson Heights," said Bassman.

And indeed much of the story's content was cheerful and promoted Jackson Heights as a booming neighborhood. For instance, one musical piece on P.S. 69, a neighborhood school, showed how children from 41 different countries speak 43 languages under one roof and get along famously. Carol and Mr. Jackson Heights sing songs about the Jackson Heights Beautification group, responsible for keeping the area clean and green. The duo talk about the grand garden city co-ops which are an architectural trademark of the historical district of Jackson Heights and the envy of New York City.

But the story left out how the co-ops built by Edward MacDougall were once advertised as restricted, available for ownership and rent to only the affluent professional class. Bassman said that the musical also did not touch upon the subject of how the Jewish community had dwindled over the years or how many of the original immigrants have moved away.

Playwright Paul Enger said it was a conscious choice to omit negative or controversial references to the history of Jackson Heights.

"Since councilwoman Helen Sears funded this musical, she wanted it to be upbeat. I was careful not to include anything very controversial," said Enger in defense of his script.

The director of the show John Sheridan said that when he first read the script he was reminded of the industrial musicals in the 1960's, where people sang praises about their products.

"It was less like real theater and more like a little commercial for Jackson Heights, just celebrating the neighborhood," said Sheridan

After an hour and a half of song and dance most people like, Roberta Gardner who said she has lived in Jackson Heights for longer than she can recall, walked out of the doors of the Jewish Center having immensely enjoyed this musical commercial about their neighborhood.

"It was great, I loved it", she said, " it hit all the highlights of Jackson Heights."

Sources / Interviews:
Elliot Bassman, Jackson Heights, Queens
Paul Enger, Jackson Heights, Queens
Thomas Scaringelli , Jackson Heights, Queens
Councilwoman Helen Sears,
Ricardo Perez Gonzalez, Astoria Queens
Bieje Chapman, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn
Chrstian Urrego, Jackson Heights, Queens
John Sheridan, Director
Arthur Abrams, Composer
Roberta Garnder, Jackson Heights, Queens
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