If you walked past the Brooklyn theatre JACK recently, you may have noticed a small army of masked volunteers shuttling boxes of turnips and leafy greens in and out of the door. When theatres were ordered to suspend programming in response to the coronavirus outbreak, the leadership at JACK, which borders the neighborhoods of Clinton and Fort Greene, immediately began thinking of ways in which their space could be of use. A few weeks—and a partnership with mutual aid group We Keep Us Safe Abolitionist Network—later, the theatre is a hub for the distribution of food and supplies to hundreds of families and residents in the vicinity.
“Once the shutdown happened, it was clear that there was a need for space in our city—for testing sites, for the treatment of patients, for food distribution,” says JACK founder and co-director Alec Duffy. One of JACK’s board members, Brittany Williams, suggested that Duffy and co-director Jordana De La Cruz connect with Samantha Johnson from WKUS, and within a week, Johnson and her volunteers had moved into the theatre to begin operations.
Initially based out of Brownsville, WKUS is a BIPOC-led mutual aid group that grew out of the No New Jails NYC movement. Launched a year ago in response to the needs of NYCHA (New York City Housing Authority) residents primarily in the Fort Greene area, Johnson began procuring food and delivering it herself to those who needed it most. As the news of her support spread via social media and through word of mouth, she began building a network of volunteers to keep deliveries running throughout the week. Today, food and supplies (including COVID-19 protective gear and essential child care supplies) are procured via donations from a variety of sources including City Harvest, World Central Kitchen, and a number of food banks, pantries, and independent suppliers.
De La Cruz and Duffy are now among the volunteers helping to sort, package, and deliver food. Since partnering with WKUS, JACK has also begun its own database of local families and individuals in need. Connecting with neighbors via word of mouth and the Nextdoor app, the JACK staff are personally dropping off packages on doorsteps and in building lobbies as the pandemic ensues. “This was an amazing opportunity to not only be able to serve the community with the space, but also get involved in a hands-on way with people in the neighborhood and volunteers from around Brooklyn,” says JACK’s co-director De La Cruz.
Though it's a pivot from traditional artistic practice, "there really isn’t anything traditional about what we do at JACK anyways," says Duffy. “Even in ‘peacetime’ we’re always thinking of ways to engage with our community that may or may not involve performance.” The food distribution effort is very much in conversation with JACK’s existing mission and values; it builds upon the organization’s work, providing a space for dialogue and action around racial justice, including JACK’s Forward Ferguson programming in 2015 and its ongoing Reparations365 series (launched in 2017) that has featured over 40 performances and community conversations around distributive justice for Black Americans. “That development from being a purely artistic space, to being a space that saw our role in our community in a bit of a different way—that was developed over a long period of time,” says Duffy.
For both Duffy and De La Cruz, the partnership with Johnson and WKUS has not only been an opportunity to give back, but also provided much-needed positivity during a challenging time. “It gives me a sense of purpose and hope,” says De La Cruz. “It’s been a privilege to be a part of this. I’m so grateful because I, personally, need to feel like in some ways I can continue helping and supporting when I’m not in a place to do it as a theatre director.”
“It feels good to be of use,” agrees Duffy. “There are so many people that are making such great sacrifices in our city right now, from the health care workers and all the essential employees, and a lot of them don’t have a choice… For us to being do this, is just a small way of contributing to this effort.”
To support JACK's mission to fuel experiments in art and activism, you can donate at JACKny.org.