CityKids Create, Collaborate at the East Village Playhouse

Steven Prescod tells his coming-of age-story in “A Brooklyn Boy,” running concurrently with “The Bench” at the East Village Playhouse. | Photo by Megan Ching

BY PUMA PERL | The storefront at 340 E. Sixth St., a tenement built in 1900, remained vacant for almost 10 years after the world music shop Tribal Soundz shut its doors. But this is not your ordinary gentrification story. There is no evil landlord, and the space was not converted to a café featuring high-priced lattes. Instead, neighborhood residents now welcome the East Village Playhouse, a 50-seat Off-Off Broadway black box theater, which is part of The CityKids Foundation. Although Tribal Soundz is dearly missed, people who share its vision of building community through the arts have become the new occupants of this special space. Teaching, collaborating, and creating new genres — while respecting the old — will continue.

The building at 340 E. Sixth St. is no victim of gentrification: East Village Playhouse and The CityKids Foundation now run their programming here. | Photo by Juliet Gomez

Musician Nora Balaban, who plays and teaches traditional music of Zimbabwe and Mozambique, owned Tribal Soundz until 2008, when it closed. “Our tag line was ‘Bringing you world music and everything you need to play it,’ ” she recalled. “We were a family there. Classes, concerts. Magic happened.” Balaban emphasized that it was not the landlord who caused the store to close. “I had the nicest landlord in New York,” she said. “He actually lowered my rent!” The problem was the change in the demographics of the neighborhood. “It was no longer a place where artists, musicians, and creative people could live.” Recently, passing by, she noticed that the door was open and, upon entering, ran into Robert Galinsky, whose play, “The Bench,” an exploration of homelessness in the ’80s, is one of two currently running at the Playhouse. He explained the new programs to her. “Tribal Soundz was mystical and magical, and that space could only be rented by someone doing something creative and beneficial towards our neighborhood. I was so excited to see what they are doing!”

CityKids President Laurie Meadoff, who founded the organization in 1985, is also excited about the new space and is well aware of the karmic connection. “We hope to continue the community work,” she told me. CityKids is a “multicultural organization, which instills leadership through the arts,” she explained. “We want to create a hub where young people can create and collaborate with each other and with other artists.” Past collaborators include the late Keith Haring, who designed the logo, and artist Kenny Scharf. Demi Moore has been a spokesperson, and Roger Daltrey performed at a fundraiser.

Programs are being developed to take place during the day, including leadership workshops led by Galinsky, who has a long history of merging art and activism. Artistic Director Moises Roberto Belizario directs the CityKids Repertory Company, which provides training in various artistic disciplines. As per their website (citykids.com), it is the mission of CityKids to empower young people to “find and strengthen their individual and collective voices and to support them to raise those voices to impact their lives, their communities, and the world.” Like Tribal Soundz, there is a motto:

     Each one reach one

     Each one teach one

     Each one pull one into the sun 

Steven Prescod’s 32 characters in “A Brooklyn Boy” include his grandparents, the local bodega owner, and childhood friends. | Photo by Megan Ching

Recently, I had the good fortune of attending a production of “A Brooklyn Boy,” running concurrently with “The Bench.” A young man, Steven Prescod, tells his coming-of-age story through taking on the personas of 32 characters. Despite growing up in a stable family, he was pulled into the violence of his environment and, not surprisingly, found himself in the court system. Eventually, he found his way to CityKids, where he was mentored by Belizario, who recognized that his stories lent themselves to a production which would not only engage but would educate in ways that would resonate with young people. The vivid backdrop, videos of Brooklyn streets and courts, open up the play and support the young actor’s ability to personify many characters. There is a realism that reminded me of my daughter Juliet’s young male friends who grew up in similar environments. Juliet, who attended the play with me, agreed. “For over an hour, I watched Steven Prescod become so many of the Brooklyn Boys I’ve known,” she said. “The Brooklyn boy with one eye on the church and one eye on the block. One foot in the streets and one foot in the dance studio. It is an authentic look at life for young men of color growing up in Brooklyn without being becoming clichéd, trite, or exploitative.”

Belizario and Pescod worked together on the book, music, and lyrics that make up the play. Following the production, Belizario, a former CityKid and the play’s director, addressed the audience, sharing the evolution of their mentorship and their creative journey, which included an excerpt of the play performed for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge during their New York City visit three years ago. They were inspired by the story and helped secure at the National Black Theater, sponsored by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts; this led to many more shows throughout the country. Belizario encouraged people to support the play and to help young people to come and see it. Fundraising efforts are in place to extend the production beyond April 28.

“I mentored Moises,” Meadoff told me. “He was 17 years old and facing 25 years to life on a drug charge when he came to us. Now he has become our Artistic Director and in turn has mentored Steven.” They hope to conduct “A Brooklyn Boy” workshops both on site and off. Although both plays currently running have social themes, that is not a requirement for production. “We are looking for artists to bring a synergy,” she said, “and we would like new collaborations with different artists.”

Bringing it all full circle, I touched base with Nora Balaban, who was on her way to see “A Brooklyn Boy” and meeting a friend who hung out at Tribal Soundz and happens to know the staff at the Playhouse. “I’m looking forward to meeting the people involved,” she said. “Maybe I can teach world music to the kids!” And the tradition of “each one teach one” shall continue.

The East Village Playhouse is located at 340 E. Sixth St., btw. First & Second Aves. “The Bench” runs through April 13, Fri. at 9pm (tickets, $37.50). “A Brooklyn Boy” runs through April 28, Thurs. and Fri. at 7pm, Sun. at 2pm. ($42.50). For ticket information, including group rates, visit eastvillageplayhouse.com.

Musician Nora Balaban, seen here at Tribal Soundz (which shuttered in 2008), is happy to see the East Village Playhouse thriving at her store’s former site. | Photo by Blair Seagram

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