ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Now, a new production that gives new meaning to the phrase: All the world's a stage. It's a new performance piece by Foundry Theatre, and it takes place on a charter bus, which winds its way through the South Bronx in New York City. The show is part-tour, part-narrative, but the main attraction is the life rolling outside the windows.
NPR's Robert Smith went along for the ride.
ROBERT SMITH: The voyage begins from a side street in Spanish Harlem, but I should warn you:
Ms. SHAWN SIDES (Co-director, "Provenance of Beauty"): There is no intermission.
SMITH: But you're telling people they should go to the bathroom before they get on the bus.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SIDES: When people come to the theater, they're usually pretty smart. If you'd say an hour and a half, no intermission, they figure it out. So if we can avoid actually saying the word bathroom, I think that's best.
SMITH: Shawn Sides is the co-director of the play "Provenance of Beauty," and the theater has just pulled up to the curb.
Ms. SIDES: This is our bus, driven by the wonderful Mary.
SMITH: The stagehands have a few last-minute preparations we don't usually see on Broadway. The windows need to be cleaned, the microphones strapped to the outside of the bus. The audience lines up to get on board.
Ms. SIDES: Welcome, ladies and gentlemen. In your seats, you should have found a pair of headsets and a receiver. Go ahead and put on your headphones. Can everyone hear me okay?
SMITH: There is no curtain. The piece begins when the charter bus drives over the Willis Avenue Bridge into the Bronx, and we watch the traffic and construction, and recorded voices come into our headsets.
Unidentified Woman: Listen. Let's say this is the type of tour where we travel from place to place, entering what is.
SMITH: Okay, it's more poetry than performance. The bus trundles along as the outside scene changes. Different actors, both live and recorded, speak in the voice of the Bronx. We see auto repair shops, a prison barge. The bus pauses for a graffiti-covered wall.
Unidentified Man: People in the neighborhood objected to these murals on the left. They wanted palm trees and flowers. They wanted to live nostalgia, as if they hadn't left Puerto Rico, or as if they had been to Puerto Rico. They would say they didn't want to see their struggles on these walls. They lived their struggles every day.
SMITH: The author of the piece is riding along with us today in a window seat. Claudia Rankine is a poet who spent her childhood in the Bronx. She cobbled the piece and this route together through interviews with business owners, housewives, artists.
Ms. CLAUDIA RANKINE (Author, "Provenance of Beauty"): We just drove the route again and again, and more and more things became the focus of our attention.
SMITH: Like this brand-new city park, sandwiched in between a sewage plant and a fertilizer factory. Each scene has to be synced up with music and actors. Melanie Joseph is the artistic director of the Foundry Theater Company.
Ms. MELANIE JOSEPH (Artistic Director, Foundry Theater Company): I mean, part of the dramaturgy is the work becomes navigating and negotiating with the realities of traffic and the length of a light and whether it's a Yankee game day, et cetera. So you have to adjust your expectations and sense of timing around the reality of the landscape, which is kind of interesting.
SMITH: And unpredictable. At one stop, a guy yells at us: You can't stop the bus here. On another street, a bunch of kids playing in a hydrant spray the bus windows and upstage the performance. A double-parked car sends us off script and onto another street. There's not too much plot in the performance, so the drama becomes more about if we'll actually make it back to where we started. It's a strange experience; the play is about the South Bronx, but we never get off the bus, never get to interact with the scenes we see. Much of the talk is about issues of gentrification. But what could be more gentrifying than a brainy theater piece in a tour bus? Then all of a sudden, we're back.
Unidentified Woman #2: Watch your step getting off the bus.
SMITH: The tour ran 15 minutes longer than planned because of the extra traffic, and you realize that the real star of this performance is the driver, Mary Wallace. The bus goes out twice an afternoon on weekends, and every time, Wallace encounters some new obstacle:
Ms. MARY WALLACE (Bus Driver, "Provenance of Beauty"): Traffic, stopped vehicles, people walking out in the middle of the street that don't see the big bus.
SMITH: Is there anything that ever stops this bus, or you can always find a way around?
Ms. WALLACE: An emergency vehicle, in a situation like that, where I really can't get by and I'm already into it, I have to wait until it's over. But other than that, I keep moving.
SMITH: Speaking of which, while we've been talking, cars have backed up in the street behind us. Wallace shoos me out the door and gets the theater back on the road.
Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.
(Soundbite of music)
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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