Resurrecting Bed-Stuy Through 'The Death of Bessie Smith'

Bed-Stuy’s Interfaith Medical Center, which is facing imminent closure due to a lack of funds, recently hosted a free, site-specific performance of Edward Albee's <i>The Death of Bessie Smith</i>. If Interfaith closes, it'll be another blow to Bed-Stuy...

Peter Rugh

Actors Jamyl Dobson and Jessica Afton. Photo by Kristina Williamson

On Tuesday afternoon, in the conference room of Bed-Stuy’s Interfaith Medical Center, a bronze-horned phonograph released the sultry purr of a female vocalist. The powerful voice beckoned the hospital staff, patients, and local residents, who all hustled to grab a seat. The hospital, which is facing imminent closure due to a lack of funds, had a full house by the time the free performance of Edward Albee's The Death of Bessie Smith, staged by New Brooklyn Theater, began.

New Brooklyn's chairman, Jeff Strabone, said the site-specific staging of the absurdist drama, which is set in a segregated hospital, is meant “to provoke a conversation about race, class, and healthcare.”

According to the popular legend upon which Edward Albee's script is based, the Empress of the Blues died needlessly near Memphis, Tennessee, in 1937, after she was denied medical treatment at a whites-only hospital following an automobile accident. The doctor who treated her by the side of Route 61 that day later disputed the tale, saying that Bessie's crushed body was in fact taken to a black hospital. In present day Bed-Stuy—a neighborhood more famous for producing hip-hop stars like Foxy Brown than blues crooners—the Caribbean and African-American community have found an apt metaphor for their fight to save Interfaith in the myth surrounding the Bessie’s demise.

“Bessie Smith represents Bedford-Stuyvesant,” said Walter Mosley, the neighborhood's state assemblyman, after watching a matinee performance last Sunday. He compared the denial of treatment the singer receives in the play to a rebuttal of funds from New York State authorities that has left Interfaith teetering on the brink of closure.

“We experience disproportionately high rates of heart disease, diabetes, respiratory illnesses, asthma, childhood obesity, and HIV infection,” said Congressman Hakeem Jeffries. Earlier on Tuesday, Hakeem supported Walter Mosley at a press conference. Together, they called on the state's Health Department to put more sugar in Interfaith's bowl and release a promised $350 million without which the deficit-burdened hospital will close by the end of January. “What we need in this community is more healthcare not less healthcare,” he said.

While a theatrical drama unfolded within Interfaith's conference room, a real life drama was taking place in the neighboring cafeteria. A coalition of patients and staff met to discuss the hospital’s impending bankruptcy hearing. Sounds of the activists' heated discussions occasionally spilled through the walls where a black hospital orderly, played by Jamyl Dobson, soliloquized, “There are some people who believe in more than just promises. There are some people who believe in action.”

One such person of action is Sharonnie Perry, a life long Bed-Stuy resident who was born at Interfaith 59 years ago. Two days earlier, when word came down that Interfaith's CEO, Patrick Sullivan, had given the order to divert ambulances from the hospital and shutdown the emergency room, Sharonnie led a delegation of 250 people over to CEO's office.

“Sullivan locked himself inside,” she recounted. The cops turned up but the crowd, led by Sharonnie, rebuked calls to disperse, laying siege to the CEO's door in a stand-off that lasted into the evening.

“When he refused to change his mind, we put the pressure on the board of trustees,” said Sharonnie. “We called them up and told them 'You have to get rid of him.' The trustees held a conference call and decided to fire him.” In the end, Patrick, not the demonstrators, was led out of the building by police. As he passed by, Sharonnie said she told the CEO not to take it personal. “It’s business,” she said.

A fierce resistance from the likes of Sharonnie and her cohorts, aided by unions representing nurses and staff who have provided funds and legal representation, has so far kept Interfaith on life support. If Interfaith closes, it will be another blow to Bed-Stuy, which has seen many of its longtime residents pushed out through gentrification, while those who remain complain of the same lack of decent schools and employment facing many urban communities of color in America.

The Death of Bessie Smith has helped put the struggle within a moral and spiritual context, as well as provided activists a chance to talk to members of the community whom they might not have met had the play not peaked local curiosity. However, they're hoping their drama, unlike Albee's play, ends in resurrection rather than death.

As for the thespians, New Brooklyn Chairman, Jeff Strabone, said that over the course of staging the play, the company has formed a strong bond with hospital staff and neighborhood activists. “We will remain in this building until they turn the lights out.”