“All my life I’ve been a political activist,” said Crystal Field, artistic director of the East Village’s Theater for the New City, which she founded in 1970. “So were my parents, and I grew up in that kind of a family.”
In Field’s latest street operetta, “Shame! Or the Doomsday Machine,” President Donald Trump is never mentioned by name, but his presence — and policies — loom large. Gun violence, school shootings, access to affordable healthcare, the separation of immigrant children from their parents, income inequality and civil rights are among the many topics touched upon in this hour-long farcical protest piece.
The operetta, composed by Joseph Vernon Banks and performed with a live six-piece band, begins in a New York City public high school classroom where a physics teacher is trying to explain Einstein’s theory of relativity. The students, however, aren’t having it. “What’s the relative speed of your own blood — does it run faster when a cop shoots you in the back, or when you are hiding under a desk from a high school shooter?” one student demands. “What is your relative amount of pain if you’ve lost your Medicare versus if your doctor doesn’t take Medicaid?” another shouts.
More questions come like rapid fire and the teacher, unwilling to engage in political discussions with his students, is left alone at his blackboard, frustrated and defeated. He sings an aria describing the responsibility he bears in making sure his students go off to college and on to a brighter future, and then gets sucked into a black hole where he emerges in various parallel universes. In one, a man wearing a dark billowy business suit, silky red tie and clown-like orange wig, and described as “the biggest real estate developer in the city,” oversees a survival of the fittest-type game where entrepreneurs are encouraged to fight each other for money and status, no holds barred; in another, set in a dive bar thousands of miles below Mar-a-Lago, guardians of the world fight to save humanity, turning the real estate developer into a black man, a woman, a welfare recipient and an immigrant.
Meanwhile, back on planet earth, the high school students discover the power of political protest and join a rally for immigrant rights on Liberty Island (yes, that rally). It’s not revealing too much to say that the teacher eventually returns from his intergalactic voyage, Albert Einstein himself shows up and discusses the universal power of love and a full-cast musical finale serves as an impassioned call to get out the vote.
“We are concerned about civil rights and the possibility of an authoritarian government,” Field said. “We are worried about rigging of the courts, of the changing of our court system so that when the time comes and we get rid of this monster who is now in the White House we will be really rather screwed because the courts will have been loaded with people who are in agreement with his policies, and it’s going to be very hard to get changes made.”
“Midterm elections count,” Field added. “We’ve got to vote.”
Theater for the New City has been producing annual free street theater musicals for 42 years, and Field has written every single show since 1978. The shows run for multiple weeks, traveling to parks, streets and other public spaces in neighborhoods around the city. This year’s production, up through September 16, will see 13 performances at locations in all five boroughs.
Top Image: Finale of Theater for the New City's “Shame! Or the Doomsday Machine." Courtesy of Jonathan Slaff