(l to r) Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Hill Harper in ‘Our Lady of 121st Street.’ (Photo: Monique Carboni)
I was recently in Harlem, having taken my dog to a local groomer that was about 15 bucks cheaper than if I had chosen a now-trendy Hell’s Kitchen locale. Dropping him at a converted brownstone buzzy with furry, four-legged creatures and their doting “pawrents,” I was excited to spend the morning exploring a part of the city where I rarely find myself: the real New York with AME churches, historical architecture and deep cultural influences that have yet to be overrun by Starbucks and Walgreens. As soon as I stepped outside though, I was nearly flattened by a group of European tourists on a walking tour, eyes gazing at wrought iron fire escapes and stomachs growling for their impending brunch at Marcus Samuelsson’s Harlem hot spot, Red Rooster.
Harlem, like most of Manhattan, has morphed into something new with the inevitable onset of urban development and gentrification. No, it’s not nearly as wretched as the commercialized 42nd Street, but there’s a slight sanitization in the air and a familiarity from Instagrammed landmarks. Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Our Lady of 121st Street, which premiered at LAByrinth Theatre Company in 2002 and transferred the following spring to the Union Square Theatre, offers a snapshot of a neighborhood—and more importantly people—in transition. Now revived by Signature Theatre, the play follows a group of interconnected characters confront one another at Sister Rose’s funeral. There’s only one problem, the body has gone missing from Ortiz Funeral Home. This solitary plot point is occasionally revisited, but the play’s more significant driving force is its array of colorful Harlem inhabitants.
Director Phylicia Rashad has assembled an exceptional cast to tackle Guirgis’s visceral dialogue that riffs and improvises like a great jazz set. Performance highlights include Hill Harper as Rooftop, a radio personality who has left the neighborhood for L.A.’s bright lights: Quincy Tyler Bernstine as Inez, his sharp-tongued ex-wife who is dressed to kill but whose words do the real damage; Paola Lázaro as Norca, a fiery Latina looking for a fight; and John Procaccino as Victor, the local cop in search of the sister’s missing body who bears the weight of a family tragedy through alcohol. These, along with other interesting characters, connect like puzzle pieces as Guirgis strategically reveals their relationships by offering a handful of “aha” moments for the audience to realize who knows whom.
Unfortunately, The Pershing Square Signature Center’s vast Irene Diamond Stage is oddly utilized by scenic designer Walt Spangler, who positions the funeral home to the stage’s rear and other locales to the far left and right, begging the audience to cast a lifeline to connect with the bristling action. The acting ensemble overcomes the challenge, though, digging their heels into the unresolved conflicts that unfold.
Though Harlem has changed over the past 15 years, Our Lady of 121st Street transcends time and place by exploring themes that continue to resonate: our obligation to family, self-worth, how we love, unresolved anger, regret. The heightened language, cut with graphic expletives, offers an emotional playground for the cast, but it also settles into reflective sincerity. The neighborhood may never be what it once was. Sister Rose’s body may never be found. But change—as much as we may try to fight it—is inevitable, at least for the people who knew Our Lady of 121st Street.
Our Lady of 121st Street
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through June 10
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @wexlerwrites.