By: Paulanne Simmons
August 14, 2020: For over four decades New York City summers have been blessed with Theater for the New City’s annual Street Theater tour, which visits all five boroughs and entertains while it raises social awareness. This year, street theater has become virtual theater as Crystal Field and her band of troubadours embrace technology to bring their latest creation into the homes and hearts of New Yorkers.
That means the show must do without much of the trappings that have made it so remarkable. There are no trap doors, puppets or movable flats. But there’s plenty of enthusiasm and conviction.
The 2020 show, “Liberty or Just Us: a City Park Story,” written and directed by Field and composed by Joseph Vernon Banks, is an oratorio honoring New York City parks as venues for activism throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The performers contribute individually from their homes, making the presentation a kind of collage filled with color, music and voice. Each performance pays tribute to the park, playground or neighborhood street it was originally scheduled for.
For much of the time, Michael David Gordon is the narrator, although other actors often take over. Together they trace activism from its beginnings, with tragedies such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and its resulting union activities and pro-labor legislation, all the way to recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Thus, the show covers civil rights, workers’ rights, women’s rights, gay rights, and more.
Although Banks and Field have written a number of new songs, the show also features traditional songs. In fact, T. Scott Lily’s heartfelt rendering of Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson’s classic union ballad, “Joe Hill,” and Cheryl Gadsden’s channeling of Billie Holiday in Abel Meeropol’s protest of black lynchings, “Strange Fruit,” are highlights.
Despite the many outrages “Liberty or Just Us” chronicles, the show is consistently upbeat and ends on a note of optimism, maintaining that with every crisis, “each time we learn a little more” and “even our losses brought us onward.”
Liberty or Just Us: a City Park Story is at https://theaterforthenewcity.net/wp-tnc/