Electchester. Yup, until recently I had never heard of it either, but that is about to change. Five Boroughs/One City, a theatrical and community engagement initiative launched in the fall of 2014 by The Working Theater, continues its journey this season through the five boroughs of New York City with “Alternating Currents,” written by Adam Kraar, directed by Kareem Fahmy, and set in Electchester—a cooperative development created for NYC electricians, with over sixty years of history in the borough of Queens.
Commissioned by The Working Theater, Adam’s play is the third installment of this ambitious theatrical initiative in which teams of writers and directors, partnered with community liaisons, immerse themselves in their designated boroughs in search of the inspiration and sources to feed the creative process for their new plays. Each play then receives an Off-Broadway premier and a five borough tour. The first play in the series, “The Block” (2016), written by Dan Hoyle and directed by Tamilla Woodard, focuses on a block in the South Bronx and is the story of lifelong friends and residents and their struggles to survive and preserve their existence in that ever changing neighborhood. This was followed last year by “Bamboo in Bushwick,” written by myself and directed by Ana Margineanu; it tells the tale of the eponymous Brooklyn neighborhood through a narrative exploring the role of art washing, landlord buy-outs, and ominous resident removal tactics in the steamroller path towards gentrification. Now it is Queens’ turn to take the light at center stage, and with this in mind, I reached out to Adam Kraar to learn a bit more about him as a writer, his process, and his experience in creating his new play about Electchester.
Ed Cardona Jr (Rail): Adam, please tell us a little bit about what inspired you to become a playwright. What is it you love the most about the theater and its various elements? What drew you to the theater?
Adam Kraar: When I was about five, my mother took me to a musical. During one of the numbers, an actress sat alone on stage in front of her mirror, wearing only a slip. I loudly blurted out, “Mom, why is that woman taking off her clothes?” Instantly, an electrical energy surged through the room—it was the audience laughing at what I’d said! I was amazed by the way this energy had a life of its own that was bigger than the individuals sitting there. The experience hooked me on the unique power of live theatre. What I love most about theater is its ability to reveal to an audience things about being human that usually remain unspoken, and the deep, sometimes mysterious, connections between people of all kinds.
Rail: Can you share a little bit about your overall body of work up to this point?
Kraar: Most of my work explores the challenges and joys of outsiders, focusing on cross-cultural clashes and connections. The style of my plays is eclectic—ranging from surrealism to naturalism, from lyrical drama to farce.
Rail: Tell us how your new play, “Alternating Currents,” may or may not fit with your current body of work.
Kraar: “Alternating Currents” is unlike much of my work, because its genesis was an invitation from The Working Theatre to create a play informed by the concerns of a particular community—Electchester, in Queens. Before the play was written, I was partnered with a director, Gaye Taylor Upchurch, who was involved in researching and brainstorming about the project.
Visiting Electchester, GT and I heard many compelling and contradictory stories, and both of us felt the play should encompass many voices. Consequently, the idea of community is far more of a character in this play than in many of my other plays.
Rail: Tell me a little bit about your initial thoughts of the Five Boroughs/One City initiative the Working Theater has implemented. Did you get a chance to see the first two plays, the Bronx and the Bushwick pieces? If so, how may they have influenced your approach to your play?
Kraar: The idea of writing plays for people who don’t generally come into Manhattan to see theater is enormously attractive to me. It seems to me that Five Boroughs/One City is dedicated to creating new audiences for live theater. In a time when much of NYC theater seems to be less and less of a popular art and more of an expensive pastime for a narrow group, I think this initiative is so important.
I saw the first two Five Boroughs plays, “The Block” and your memorable “Bamboo in Bushwick.” Both were definitely inspiring as I developed “Alternating Currents.” “Bamboo,” for example, reminded me how compelling the “music” of a neighborhood’s voices could be in telling its stories—and also how these stories might be told in other than strictly realistic ways.
Rail: Talk a little bit about your overall process, your research, the development of your play, and your journey of connecting with the current residents of Electchester and its history. What were the approaches taken? What did you learn? What questions do you still have? In addition, how did it feed your creative process?
Kraar: Connecting with residents at Electchester—and at Pomonok, the housing project across the street—involved everything from story circles facilitated by the electricians’ union to attending community events like Electchester’s renowned Christmas Tree Lighting; from buttonholing people at bus stops to hanging out at the Pomonok Community Center until I could get someone to talk to me. I was overwhelmed with the wide range of people’s feelings about the neighborhood, and the contradictory perspectives about race relations, class relations, the union, and even the politics of the street fair! I quickly became convinced there was an abundance of drama in this neighborhood. Distilling all of it into a play that captured the deepest concerns of this community was challenging, and it was only when I created a couple of imaginary characters (loosely based on people I’d met) that the story took shape.
I still have lots of questions about the community, including “How can people reconcile their need to belong to a community with their need to live out their individual identities?” I hope the play will make people ask themselves this question, too.
Rail: As I developed my play, “Bamboo in Bushwick,” we had many readings, talkbacks, and community engagement events. Can you talk a little about that experience and how those specific types of events influenced your writing process?
Kraar: The project certainly had an unusual journey from conception to production! Both you and I were so lucky to have the support of Mark Plesent [The Working Theater’s Artistic Director] and Tamilla Woodard [Artistic Director of the Five Boroughs/One City project]. Commissioning five full-length plays and mounting productions of them that tour the boroughs and also play Off-Broadway takes remarkable vision—and chutzpah!
The play had three developmental workshops, one of which was presented at the union hall at Electchester. Seeing residents from the neighborhood watch a play informed by their neighbors was both humbling and thrilling. And their comments afterward—ranging from “Do you live next door to me?” to “A union member would never drive that kind of car”—gave me confidence to keep developing the play.
While my main collaborator on this process was GT, her schedule prevented her from helming the play this season. Fortunately, I’ve been able to team up with another excellent director, Kareem Fahmy, who has a terrific curiosity about the world of this play.
Rail: Give us a brief look into the world of your play, “Alternating Currents,” not giving too much away of course.
Kraar: From our first visit to Electchester, GT Upchurch and I were amazed at how different it is from other neighborhoods in NYC. (One astonishing fact about it is how few New Yorkers have ever heard of the place!) Electchester is a cooperative housing complex founded by the Electrician’s union in the 1950s—and, to this day, many of its residents are union members. People there have an infectious pride about the remarkable variety of community activities they offer. And, with their well-kept grounds, good security, and neighborliness, it almost feels like you’re not even in the City. At the same time, changing demographics and values—and recent pressures on unions in this country—threaten many of the things that long-time residents cherish about their community. “The way it used to be”—a predominantly white, extremely tight-knit community of union-connected folks—is at odds with many of the realities of NYC in 2018. And that clash, between the community’s ideals and the complex reality of a changing city, is at the heart of Alternating Currents. The story revolves around a young couple, union electricians, who’ve recently moved to Electchester, discovering their place in this community and in a changing New York City.
Rail: What are the overarching themes that you had no choice but to write about and what were some that surprised you?
Kraar: The themes of home, belonging, and the complexities of racism were themes that demanded to be in the play. Among the many things that surprised me was how much the history and ideals of the electrician’s union ended up in the story.
Rail: The Working Theater’s mission is to tell stories and create theater about working class people. Tell us a little bit about how “Alternating Currents” does that.
Kraar: The major characters are all electricians.
Rail: Tell us about the touring aspect of the show and your thoughts on that.
Kraar: The idea of the Five Boroughs/One City Project was to create a play informed by a specific community, and then perform the play in a host venue in that community. And, beyond that, to tour the play to other boroughs—with the idea that the concerns of one neighborhood may somehow speak to—or challenge—people in other parts of the city. I’m extremely excited to learn how a story about Electchester will resonate with audiences in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Manhattan.
Alternating Currents, by Adam Kraar, directed by Kareem Fahmy, will be performed at the following locations and times: QUEENS: April 26-28 at Local 3, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (158-11 Jewel Avenue); MANHATTAN (Off-Broadway premier): May 1 – 20 at Urban Stages (259 West 30th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues); THE BRONX: May 16 at Bronx Museum of the Arts (1040 Grand Concourse); STATEN ISLAND: MAY 22-24 at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center (1000 Richmond Terrace); BROOKLYN: May 26 (2 pm and 7pm) at RiseBoro Youth Center (1474 Gates Avenue).