How the Real-Life Washington Heights Riots Inspired A City of Refuge

Interview   How the Real-Life Washington Heights Riots Inspired A City of Refuge
The Primitive Grace Theatre Company’s production starring Luke Edward Smith closes December 22.
Luke Edward Smith in <i>A City of Refuge</i>
Luke Edward Smith in A City of Refuge David Zayas Jr.

Somewhere outside the Shrine to St. Christopher’s and the Annunciation, the setting of Evan Cuyler-Louison’s A City of Refuge, a young man of color lost his life at the hands of an NYPD detective, and a neighborhood is on the verge of rupture. The parish in question, being closed for reasons unclear, becomes an unlikely sanctuary for neighborhood residents—a suspended patrolman, a Dominican business owner, a drug-addicted drifter, an orphaned girl, the church’s lay leader. All fleeing the unrest that follows, they shelter in place to wait out the panic in the streets, while hints of scandal, rumors of impropriety, and signs of frailty begin hover over the beleaguered parish priest, Father Tom Barrington.

Over a weekend’s time, the tenor reaches a boiling point, and the fragile bonds of community begin to fracture. Barrington’s struggle to provide a safe haven from the chaotic city streets, and accommodate the coming trove of ethnic and social tensions, puts the play’s wheels in motion toward a tragic end. Played to a hilt by Australian-born actor Luke Edward Smith, Barrington is portrayed as a flawed, wounded caregiver, as much an indictment of the white-savior trope as an illustration of what can be accomplished through truly immersive, transformative devotion to character.

Inspired by the real life Washington Heights riots of 1992, the production of the new play A City of Refuge by five-year-old Primitive Grace Theatre Ensemble is staged at the Upper West Side’s Center at West Park in a limited engagement through December 22.

Here, Smith, and Primitive Grace’s founders and artistic co-directors Paul Calderon and David Zayas discuss the process of mounting an ambitious, timely play, that functions as both a provocation and a dialogue about addiction, faith, the nature of violence, and the unreliability of narrative.

You’ve all been working on this project for a while now, with the writer-director, Evan Cuyler-Louison. How did it begin?
David Zayas: We had the opportunity to put something up at this theatre, which used to be a church.
Paul Calderon: Evan had sent us another piece of his, but it had 12 characters. It was too big for the space we were working in. Then he said, “Well, I have this other thing…”
DZ: And he had a script that took place in a church. So it was just the right time and place.
Luke Edward Smith: Evan handed me the script after a company meeting. He said, “have a read of this, see what you think.”

First time writer director, was there any hesitation in that, going with Evan?
Calderon: Of course. Always. But having worked with Evan, he was my stage manager on our last production, he’s an extremely bright guy, extremely artistic, and I said, “Let’s take a chance.”

Is there a risk in that?
Zayas: If there was no risk, it wouldn’t feel like something we would want to do as a company. That’s what we’re all about. Evan was the right person to lead this project as the director. He presented himself as the best choice for the job, and it was really that simple. You need the right person to do something like this.
Calderon: Evan had shown that he had such an artistic capacity. And he’s come through, he’s done an enormous job with this production from the writing to the lighting to the sound to directing the actors. For a first-time director, he’s done amazingly well.

Luke, Father Barrington is someone who’s much older than you. What does that challenge entail?
Luke Edward Smith: Much older. I’d never attempted anything like this, where the person’s age speaks to who he is, where he is in life, what’s he’s been through, what he’s seen. Physically is probably the easiest way to start talking about it. Where he is in life, Barrington’s got a great weight with him. So that means slowing down my rhythm, my own personal rhythm, moving in a specific way. There’s an injury that Barrington has in his left leg, and I’ve got to fit that into my prep. And that slows him down a lot. He’s struggling with catching his breath a great deal, so it’s a lot of long intakes and quick exhales.

Would you say this is your most challenging role so far, or that it requires the most of your artistic toolbox?
Smith: I would. I’ve played some tough roles and done bits and pieces of everything I’ve done in the show, but I don’t think I’ve ever used this many tools in the show. It’s a big space so there’s a lot of volume and physicality, but he’s also sick, and aging. He feels very responsible for what’s happened, what’s happening.

And he can’t go to anyone to say this, because they’re all coming to him for help.
Smith: In some ways it’s a very lonely role, a very lonely person to be.

It makes sense that it would end the way it does for him.
Smith: Definitely. There’s no other way it can end. I think Barrington just wanted to keep everyone together one last night, keep everyone alive until dawn, and he fails

In a big way, it’s almost his greatest sin. Because there’s a hubris there, that he can take on this unrealistic responsibility for everyone in the church, and he puts blinders on in order to undertake it.
Smith: It’s his one last shot at redemption. To try and get these people through, to help them survive. Deep down, I think that’s all Barrington thinks he can do for people. Just help them to survive.

I’ve seen one other Primitive Grace production, Master of the Crossroads. A City of Refuge takes place in the early ’90s during the riots in Washington Heights. Would you say there is a through-line in terms of what productions you’ve mounted, what Primitive Grace is and what you’re obsessed with, and that A City of Refuge ties into that?
Calderon: We try to work on this thing called Duende, which is connected with death, and is this unsettling presence beneath all life. We want to be able to infect, affect, provoke, and unsettle the audience. To dismantle the paradigm. A lot of times, you see a play, and it’s great, but your paradigm hasn’t shifted. There’s no shake. So when you’re watching something and you hate it but you leave and your paradigm has been shifted, the question becomes What the fuck happened here?

David, you were present during the time of the riots, working as a police officer in Washington Heights.
Zayas: I had a pretty unremarkable career as a cop for 15 years. I was there during the riots in the Heights, and it was a very chaotic time.

How does this piece speak to your experience of what was going on at that time?
Zayas: Well, I think the event itself, isn’t really talked about, for one reason or another, and that was one reason we were interested in Evan’s piece, was the fact that not that many people know about what happened. In terms of the characters, they sort of embody the kinds of personalities that were present at that time.

In the show’s opening, there’s footage of a police riot at City Hall in the months that followed the riots, motivated by David Dinkins’ proposal to change the Civilian Complaint Review Board’s makeup to 100 percent civilian, as opposed to equal parts police and civilian oriented. How have things changed in terms of the way the Police Benevolent Association exerts leverage and power moves in order to obtain their objectives in the city government?
Zayas: I think the majority of the way things have changed have to do with media being far more available, and the truth still being hard to see, no matter how much more visible things are. The news footage in the play, at that time, that was all we had to go on. Nowadays there’s a lot more to take in. Now in terms of what happened, I think perspectives about the police and community policing are really colored by fear and misunderstanding. At that time, it was the height of the crack epidemic, but for me, and I would say for the majority of the people involved, like most of the guys on the job at that time, particularly during the riots, we were just trying to get through it, and get home safe. Stay alive.

What does the future hold for Primitive Grace?
Calderon: We’ll see.
Zayas: We live in the moment as much as we can.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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