Theater News

Theatre 167: Bringing Jackson Heights to Times Square

The Jackson Heights Trilogy takes New York’s most diverse neighborhood and puts it right off of its busiest.

Jyotsna du Ciel, Andrew Guilarte, Marcelino Feliciano in <i>167 Tongues</i>
Jyotsna du Ciel, Andrew Guilarte, Marcelino Feliciano in 167 Tongues
© Joel Weber

The crossroads of the world aren’t 42nd Street and Broadway in Manhattan; they’re Roosevelt Avenue and 74th Street in Jackson Heights, Queens. Luckily, Director Ari Laura Kreith is bringing those crossroads to Times Square with The Jackson Heights Trilogy at Theatre 777.

Made up of the last three plays produced by Kreith’s company, Theatre 167, The Jackson Heights Trilogy is an epic song of America’s most diverse neighborhood, situated around the Jackson Heights subway station in Queens. Countless immigrants from all over the world have arrived in the United States through New York City’s two major airports, and promptly decided to settle in the part of Queens roughly between them. “We joking refer to it as The Coast of LaGuardia,” says Kreith, referencing Tom Stoppard’s trilogy of play about pre-revolutionary Russia, The Coast of Utopia.

The first of the three, 167 Tongues, refers to the number of languages spoken in Jackson Heights and follows a diverse cast of characters from the neighborhood. The second, You are Now the Owner of This Suitcase begins at LaGuardia airport, but quickly expands to a myriad of separate stories and vignettes, all overlapping and interweaving. The third, Jackson Heights 3AM follows the same pattern as the first two, but offers a view of Roosevelt Avenue after dark.

“I feel very protective of Roosevelt Avenue,” says Kreith, recalling a pearl-clutching “exposé” on this boulevard of sin from a certain “family newspaper,” that repeated the claim, “The seediness pushed out of Times Square merely re-established itself there.” Kreith counters, “After spending so many late nights there, it’s a lot easier to understand the people out there and why they’re there.”

Like many of the denizens of Roosevelt Avenue, Kreith fell in love with the neighborhood from the moment she moved there in 2006. “Ever since I moved to Jackson Heights I got this feeling that this neighborhood needed to be a play. I was in Boulder, Colorado and I was trying to explain it to people. That was the moment I knew that there needed to be a document that showed what this place feels like.”

Of course, considering there is such a plurality of voices and backgrounds in Jackson Heights, Kreith didn’t feel that it was right for her to be the only writer. “If we’re trying to look at a number of different voices and the way those voices come together and have conversations, then maybe it’s not just one writer’s voice. “

It ended up being a whole lot more than one. The Jackson Heights Trilogy is a massive collaboration between 18 playwrights, with 38 actors play 93 different roles including a Bangladeshi cab driver, a Rwandan night nurse, and a Colombian drag queen. “It’s ridiculously huge,” admits Kreith. Conflicts between writers about where to take a character or storyline have proven to be very helpful in Kreith’s mission to create the feel of Jackson Heights on stage. “The conflicts of discovery in the process are very much the conflicts of discovery that exist in the neighborhood.” Meaning that you’re bound to learn a lot living and working in close proximity to people from dissimilar backgrounds to your own, even if you get really pissed off in the process.

And now you don’t even have to take the 7 Train to get pissed off like that. “There are so many people who’ve never had the experience of what Jackson Heights feels like and would never have that experience otherwise. So it was about bringing it out of the neighborhood and sharing it with the wider world,” explains Kreith on her decision to bring the plays, which have all had successful runs in Queens, to Times Square.

“Our cast looks like the world looks and, for me, how the theater should look. I hope that people walk out of the plays thinking, ‘Oh yes, this is the world I live in. I don’t live in my pocket of the world. I don’t just connect with the people who look like me while ignoring everyone else.’ It’s about shattering stereotypes and creating a different sense of community that we’re all in together.”

For tickets to The Jackson Heights Trilogy, click here. (And really, why wouldn’t you? When is the next time you’re going to see a cast that huge and a project this ambitious for just $18 a ticket?)

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