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