Review: Hart Island Excavates the Final Resting Place of the Poorest New Yorkers
A new play from Tracy Weller and Mason Holdings takes us to the forbidden island off the coast of the Bronx.
Manhattan is the brightest star in the New York City constellation — a crowded island full of busy and prosperous people constantly on the move. In such a place, it often feels like there is no room for anyone who doesn't have somewhere to be at all times, and one of the dirty secrets of New York is that out-of-place people (criminals, the poor, the mentally ill) get pushed off Manhattan and onto smaller islands located in the waters where the East River meets the Long Island Sound: Randall's Island, Rikers Island, and (the unfortunate resting place for a fair number of residents of the former two) Hart Island, which serves as the "Potter's field" for New York City and is the largest mass gravesite in the United States. If you die in New York City and no one claims your body (or no one is willing to pay for its disposal), you will be buried on Hart Island.
That is the subject of Tracy Weller's Hart Island, which is now performing at the Gym at Judson in a production by Mason Holdings and director Kristjan Thor. Billed as a "multimedia theatrical meditation," the play weaves together the testimony of six individuals with ties to the island, identified only by their initials: M.R. (a compellingly reserved Nora Cole) had a child who died just days after being born. G.D. (the achingly sympathetic Julie Asriyan) had a troubled boyfriend who fell (or jumped) off a bridge. A.E. (no-nonsense and yet very relatable Jimmy Crowell II) is a nursing student who worked at a facility on Randall's Island for elderly addicts. H.T. (James Foster Jr., seeming like he just got off shift from doing this actual job and came to the theater) drives the bus that takes inmates from Rikers Island to dig graves on Hart Island (for the outrageous wage of 50 cents an hour). R.I. (powerfully soft-spoken David Samuel) and N.E. (a haunting Daniel Kublick) are two of the guys who do the digging.
The spine of the play is the narrator (portrayed by the playwright herself), who uses her NPR voice to convey historical facts about the East River's northern islands for some sort of documentary. Cloistered in a sound booth overlooking the stage, she is simultaneously removed from the other characters and deeply affected by their stories, as well as the shocking facts she encounters in her own script: Rikers is the de facto largest mental institution in the world; much of Rikers is landfill which is decomposing and poisoning the waters around New York; the trenches on Hart Island can hold 162 adults or 1,000 infants.
Weller appears choked-up by these facts, unable to continue her narration. Situated in the tower, she comes across like a type of emotional conductor, signaling how we are to react to this information. This is superfluous and distracting, as is an early bit about the voice actor arriving late after just getting the gig the night before. The stories of Hart Island are powerful on their own, and don't need to be buttressed.
Weller and Thor layer them beautifully in a staging that supports the distinct clarity of each story while putting them in conversation in surprising ways. Characters seem to be at once on Hart Island, in the stories as they are relaying them, and in a support group, all of which are conveyed by Christopher and Justin Swader's multi-tier set. A level of mulch brings the earth into the theater and seems to contain secrets, like an archeological site. Mentally, you'll still be digging hours after the end of the play as you entertain connections between these characters that might not be immediately apparent.
At the same time, Hart Island feels like the theatrical equivalent of someone who cannot choose which accessory to wear, so opts for all of them. On top of the multiple layers of storytelling in the performances, Yana Biryukova's projections compete for our eyeballs (and sometimes contradict the script, as in a segment about Pangea). That competes with Phil Carluzzo's immersive sound design and Christina Tang's moody and unpredictable lighting, which more than once left me wincing. The sensory overload of form regularly overwhelms the content.
This is too bad, because the stories of Hart Island should be heard more. New Yorkers mostly treat them with an out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude, only becoming engaged when the invisible dare to become too visible on our morning commutes. It shouldn't take horrible acts of violence in the subway for us to care about the plight of the least fortunate — and we should know by now that exiling them to smaller islands around our own will never be a viable long-term solution.