Site-Specific Revival of Edward Albee's Death of Bessie Smith Explores Plight of Endangered Inner-City Hospital

By Karu F. Daniels
06 Feb 2014

Edward Albee
Edward Albee

Edward Albee's decades-old work about the death of a blues legend has been revived to help bring attention to the possible closure of a Brooklyn hospital. 

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The latest foray into what is commonly referred to as "site-specific art" has come in the form of an obscure play exploring the legend of a famous black blues singer's death, after being denied medical treatment during the Jim Crow Era south — being staged at an inner-city hospital on the brink of shuttering.

It doesn't seem like it can get any more specific than that.

Edward Albee's The Death of Bessie Smith was written 75 years ago and isn't recognized as one of the more notable works by the playwright of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?but a revival of the short piece is taking on new meaning for Brooklyn's Interfaith Medical Center, where it is currently being staged through Feb. 9.

With a cast featuring Jessica Afton, Brian D. Coats, Jamyl Dobson, Edwin Lee Gibson, Keilly McQuail, James Patrick Nelson and Paul Wilcox, the Jonathan Solari-directed production is bringing attention to the possible closure of the Bedford Stuyvesant-based hospital. In recent years, the small community medical center filed for bankruptcy and has been struggling to keep its doors open. The New Brooklyn Theater, founded in 2012, is using its altruistic talent pool as a change agent.

"We've been actively pursuing a permanent home for the arts in Bed-Stuy for the past several years," Solari, artistic director of the non-profit theatre company, told Playbill.com. "As an organization, we have become deeply invested in our home and the issues that impact our audience... We have always felt that we had an obligation to use our art form as a way to speak to the social issues that our neighbors deal with on a daily basis and we learned that there was a need for our work."

While revisiting Albee's body of work, Solari said he discovered The Death of Bessie Smith and after reading it through, had the epiphany that the play contained the relevance to speak to the complex issues facing his neighborhood's hospital. Jeff Strabone, the company's chairman, was already active in the fight to save a few of New York City's hospitals (some have already shuttered in recent years) and was arrested with Mayor Bill de Blasio for civil disobedience while protesting a possible closure.



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