BLACKOUT03, a new play by fifteen-year Greenpoint resident Kate Bell, is premiering tonight at Manhattan’s HERE Arts Center (145 6th Ave, New York, NY) as part of the legendary Downtown Urban Theater Festival, and stars Alex Major, Chinaza Uche, LaTonia Phipps, and Lindsey Austen. The play is now sold out.

The play takes place on a Greenpoint rooftop during the historic blackout of August 2003, and centers on four friends who meet up to enjoy the magical evening, but “when the lights go out, shit gets real,” says Bell, and issues of race, class, and gentrification bubble to the surface. Greenpointers caught up with Bell today before the show.

Actors Alex Major, Chinaza Uche, & LaTonia Phipps rehearsing the play ©Kate Bell

GPers: When did you start writing this four act series? And why? 

Kate Bell: I started writing The Blackout Plays a couple of years ago in a workshop with the playwright Tanya Barfield.  She wanted us to write two connected one-acts, and I always thought the ’03 blackout was an awesome event to set a play in, especially where I spent it: on a roof in Greenpoint, playing with the shadows cast by the full moon (the only time in New York City I have ever seen my own moon shadow, since there was no light pollution!).

I had a partner piece set during the ’77 blackout. The idea would be that the same four actors would play different characters in each.  I knew a lot about how intense the ’77 blackout was with all of the looting, so I knew I wanted both plays to really think about race and class in the city…gentrification seemed to be the right focus for the ’03 piece, then. And then once I had the two, I realized I wanted to expand the journey through the history of the city even further, so now there’s also a Blackout65 and a BlackoutFuture (set around 2040).  Blackout65 references the riots in Harlem in ’64 and the coming “white flight” to the suburbs, with a real focus on police brutality. 

The future piece considers how we might have more power problems in the future (an increase in blackouts and their duration), as well as more flooding in NYC, and that both of these problems might be hard to tackle if the gap between the wealthy and everyone else continues to widen.  I really just want audiences to look at where we’ve been and where we’re going as a city in terms of race and class; I want to inspire some productive conversations among diverse audiences with the work.

LaTonia Phipps and Chinaza Uche ©Kate Bell

Why did you move to Greenpoint in 2000? 

KB: I was 25 years old and freshly in love.  I’m still with him, in fact…and he loves New York City, really only wants to live here.  And back in 2000, I was just graduating from an M.F.A. program in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan, and I hadn’t really figured out what I was going to do next.  And then, boom, LOVE!  So moving to Brooklyn was very alluring…

GPers: Are you worried about Greenpoint? Or optimistic? (Or something else?)

KB: I’m worried about a lot of the people who have lived here for a long time being displaced. I’ve been here for 15 years, but so many of our neighbors have been here for much longer, and how terrible is it to have to leave your home of 30 years because the rent is raised to a level you can’t afford? 

LaTonia Phipps, Alex Major, & Lindsey Austen ©Kate Bell

I’m lucky because I live in a rent-stabilized apartment, but there’s no way that my boyfriend and I could afford to move into a new apartment in the Greenpoint now, or really most Brooklyn neighborhoods. So again, because of the rent-stabilized apartment, we’re really lucky. I might be a lot more pissed off about the gentrification if I were worried about losing my home, which I know many people are. 

I mean, it’s nice to have more bars and restaurants and boutiques and all of these things…but some of them I can’t really afford. I would really like to see Greenpoint (and all of the communities that are gentrifying) make an effort to have some “town hall” conversations with both the “old guard” of the neighborhood and the newcomers to discuss how the neighborhood is changing in a productive way. Like what can we all agree on?

Seems like many Greenpointers, old and new, want that park that we’ve been promised at North 14th Street, for example. Could we also have some sort of coalition of both new and old Greenpointers that works for assuring there’s enough affordable housing left in the neighborhood? Does that kind of coalition already exist? I just think we’re in a crucial moment as a city (not just in Greenpoint), and we need to be having some difficult conversations, and hopefully that will lead to stronger communities and less displaced people.

Kate Bell is a Greepoint-based playwright, director, singer/songwriter, and teaching artist. When she’s not busy writing, Kate likes to hang out at the booths at The Black Rabbit and goes running in Transmitter Park and at the East River Ferry stop with her dog. “Those piers didn’t used to be there and I LOVE running them,” Kate says.

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