Bread of the Heart

My family has a long history of living near the neighborhood of Jackson Heights, just a few stops up on the 7, in Corona.  To me, the neighborhood has always been where my great aunts and great uncles arrived from the Dominican Republic and settled in, starting to build new lives; where my grandmother arrived with my mother and two uncles in tow; where my uncles still live with my aunts and cousins, and now my grandmother, who can no longer live alone in the Dominican Republic.  Taking the trip on the 7 train out to that hood has always meant that I’m that much closer to a warm plate of rice and beans, and that my aunt’s kitchen-turned-salon would transform my crazy hair in pelo bueno.  Since joining the team of the Jackson Heights Trilogy two and half years ago, that trip on the 7 now means so much more.

Summer of 2010–I had just graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with my MFA in Acting and relocated back to the city. Through at least three different people, I heard of this project, 167 Tongues, that was being done in a cafeteria out in Jackson Heights, Queens.  “Jackson Heights, Queens,” I thought to myself, “my family is from around there…and in a cafeteria??”  I missed the original production, but then it was being remounted for a brief run at Queens Theatre in the Park, and I learned that I had been recommended for one of the roles that was being re-cast.  “Theatre out in Queens?  Hm…maybe,” I thought.  I was really trying to get as close to the stages of Manhattan as possible, not further away!  But the more I learned about the project, the neighborhood, and this collective of artists that director Ari Laura Kreith had assembled into Theatre 167, the more I knew I was in the right place.

This original work was the kind of work that had always excited me as an actor, and I couldn’t believe that I had been at all unsure as to join!  Gathering over 11 playwrights to explore the neighborhood and collectively capture the boisterous, confusing, and diverse hood of “the original Heights” (as my cousin calls it) through the lens of 167 Tongues was nothing short of astounding to me.  Each time I went out to the end of the 7 line, I would learn something new about the people and cultures that made up “the most diverse neighborhood in the world.”  And the faces I was seeing on the street were the faces I was seeing around me on stage!  Over the past few years that I’ve been working in “the biz” of theatre and tv/film, I have heard, repeatedly from artists I admire, about the problem the industry faces with regard to diversity in casting.  Well, that was not the problem here…we were a diverse collective of races, religions, sexual orientations and experiences, and the love and respect that grew in the room was contagious.

That first summer doing 167 Tongues was a revelation to me…I had found a community of artists, and a very special project that was giving light and inspiration in the neighborhood which had birthed it.  And it didn’t stop there!  Next came You Are Now the Owner of This Suitcase, which I experienced as an audience member, not being able to join the cast this time around.  However, sitting in the cafeteria of PS 69 amongst the very people whose lives and cultures had inspired the journey we were all taking as we watched the show was a magical experience in and of itself.  The excitement was palpable.

I jumped at the chance to do the next show, Jackson Heights 3AM, and learned even more about the neighborhood….brothels, sex trafficking victims, midnight car dispatchers, drag queens—this was a grittier, dirtier Jackson Heights than I had ever known in the daylight, and here was Theatre 167 shedding a bit of light on these realities.

Now when I walk around the hood, I catch myself looking around with different eyes–landmarks of the streets are also landmarks in our plays, and the faces I pass are perhaps some of the faces that inspired these stories.  I especially catch myself looking up at the windows of the apartments above storefronts, wondering if there’s a young girl peering out that has been trafficked far from home.  It’s still a neighborhood that means home to me, but along with the beauty and richness of people, food and sounds, I also see the darkness, and it breaks my heart.

The power and magic of The Jackson Heights Trilogy is now coming to Manhattan, and I know that we couldn’t be prouder or more excited to share this with audiences that perhaps have never ventured as far into the heart of Queens as we all have!  Over 18 playwrights and 41 actors bring to life 98 characters….what!?  It’s exciting for me to come to rehearsal and every time feel that I’m coming to see family, for these actors have all become family (even the new ones are roped in right quick!).  It’s a ride that I am so grateful to have taken (and be taking once again).

Albert Camus said, “One either serves the whole of mankind or one does not serve him at all.  And if man needs bread and justice – what has to be done, must be done, to serve this need.  He also needs pure beauty which is the bread of his heart, courage in one’s life and talent in one’s work.”  This is a quote which has always inspired me in my pursuit of theatre–the work that this collective of playwrights, actors and designers (and led by one fearless director!) is truly the “pure beauty” which can ignite us to courage and inspiration in our lives.

Jackson Heights is now not only the rice and beans of my stomach, but also the bread of my heart.

—Flor De Liz Perez

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My Favorite Interview


Like many people who grew up in New York, I always took for granted all the great neighborhoods that were a quick train ride away from me. I had been to Jackson Heights a few times; but only to meet friends for Indian food, then get right back on the train home.  So working with Ari and Theater 167 gave me the opportunity to really get to know Jackson Heights and its people like I never knew them before.

My favorite interview was with an artist from Columbia. Her work was hanging in a local café (Espresso 77), so I jotted down her web site and sent her a note. She was delighted to meet with me. One thing she told me was that while she was living in Columbia her art work was very conservative, and that when she got here she felt freer to find humor and explore new subject matter in her painting.  I would describe her work but it’s not exactly family friendly. I can tell you though it involved very offbeat, funny  and somewhat feminist interpretations of myths and folklore.  She also said that, because of the language barrier, her family had low expectations for her.  They told her she had to become a domestic to make a living in New York. But she had higher ambitions, and the first thing she did was get a job as a receptionist in a doctor’s office where she would be forced to use and perfect her English.

Ultimately, we couldn’t use this interview because it didn’t fit into our narrative, and that’s totally fine. That’s what collaboration is all about.  What makes the play so exciting is that Ari was able to sift through the material and create a unified, compelling  vision.

—Gary Winter


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The Alphonso mango

Currently it is twenty-one degrees outside.  It’s the middle of winter in New York City.  Days like these, I can’t help but pine after summertime.  Even with its thick, brain-draining humidity, the New York City summer calls to me from the deep, dark recesses. ‘Remember me?’ it says.  ‘I’m not as far away as you think,’ it says.  Summer, with its abundant sunlight, invincible spirit, and glorious edible offerings.  I miss it so.

There are certain events that I’ve come to think of as marking summertime in New York City: the popping-up of open-air performances, the explosion of greenmarkets, the descent of sweaty tourists.  However there’s one event in particular that I look forward to with the heart-consuming eagerness of a child.  It’s when the Indian mangoes arrive at Patel Brothers market in Jackson Heights.

The Alphonso mango from western India is regarded as the most prized mango on Earth.  Alphonsos are different from the larger, more familiar Latin American mangoes with red, green, and yellow skins; and they’re different from the yellow kidney-shaped mangoes of Southeast Asia.  The Alphonso is compact and round, with smooth, yellow and red skin. It smells sweet and faintly floral, and when you cut one open it reveals bright, almost neon-orange flesh.  It tastes, in varying degrees, like honey and flowers, underlined by an intense mango fruitiness that renders it estranged from its cousins.

In our play Jackson Heights, 3 AM, I like to think that the mango which lovelorn Devaj gives the equally lovelorn Adela is an Alphonso mango.  His delivery of the precious fruit, in place of words (which are useless anyway, as neither character speaks the other’s language), is an act of poetry.  It’s a gift that represents affection, generosity, and even cultural exchange.  It is with this same spirit that Jackson Heights, 3 AM was created and developed.

Just as the 2011 summer was beginning, and just as the first shipment of Alphonsos were coming in, Devaj and Adela first appeared on the page.  A line that Devaj spoke to Adela back then (which has long since been cut) is ‘It should always be mango season for you.’ In the cold grip of winter, watching the play during opening weekend brought me a bit of mango season.  And it makes me look ahead to next summer, when the Alphonsos come around again.



-Melisa Tien


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Happiest Place on Earth?

I’d never stepped foot in Jackson Heights prior to working on 167 Tongues. And now, as I pushed the green door and walked out of the subway station on 74th St. and Roosevelt Ave. to attend the JH3AM meeting, it feels like a second home. I think I know more about this little neck of Queens than I do about my own neighborhood.

When I pass the three taco trucks parked right outside of the station I think about how exciting it’s been to be a part of this process. To have been a part of the first two installments of the JH trilogy: 167 Tongues, and You are now the owner of this suitcase, and to now be involved in the genesis of the final piece of the puzzle. My salivary glands are on overdrive with the notion that we’ll be diving into the darker side of the area. As I walk down Roosevelt before truing onto 81st St. my eyes are peeled, is that a brothel? How about that one? I tell myself, it’s the middle of a Saturday afternoon, and the chances of seeing something are slim, but still, I scan.

So many faces. There are so many interesting face on my walk from the subway to the Renaissance School for rehearsal. What are your stories? How did you come here? What does Jackson Heights mean to you?

I get to the school, sit in my blue chair, and as the meeting starts, as the new pages the writers have brought in are read, I think, “Holy shit,” can I say shit?… I think, “Holy smokes, this is great. These stories belong to those faces. The faces I just saw coming here. I mean maybe not the very same faces, this isn’t an autobiographical play. But it could be! The material is so rooted in the reality of the lives of the faces that live in this neighborhood.”

We talk story, we talk possible development ideas, and there is one idea in particular that, upon imagining it, invokes and instant visceral reaction; chokes me up and brings tears to my eyes. It was so satisfyingly tragic. Really beautiful. I cross my inner fingers and toes, because I want so badly for this idea to make it into the play.

I wonder, aloud, about my role as an actor in this process. I just can’t wait to get on my feet and explore some of these stories, these ideas, these faces. Jackson Heights may not be everybody’s ‘Happiest place on Earth,’ but because so much of my creative life has been expressed here over the last 2 years, it is surely becoming one of mine.


—Arlene Chico-Lugo

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