Show uses Mott Haven streets to tell story of the Bronx

East 140 Street La Lupe Way.

Experiencing the recent performance of a show about the South Bronx was like looking at a double-exposure.

When the audience for “The Provenance of Beauty” took a bus tour through the streets of Mott Haven and Hunts Point, this Fall, they viewed the neighborhoods’ streets through the window and its past on video monitors.

And the spectators were also the spectacle.

“Once we enter the Bronx, what you look at will look back at you,” says a recorded voice at the beginning of show.

Few in the audience lived in the Bronx, and some had never set foot in the borough. Wherever they looked, they were confronted with change.

The South Bronx, argue the creators of “The Provenance of Beauty” is a place of explosive, astonishing, change.

Voices, male and female, heard through earphones, isolated each passenger, as though each was the only participant in the 90-minute journey. The voices not only described the neighborhoods, but also told their story through characters who live or have lived in them, in a narrative peppered with personal anecdotes.

Those personal tales made all the difference to those who were being formally introduced to the South Bronx for the first time, said the bus riders.

On East 140th Street, for example, a casual visitor might notice the street sign that says “La Lupe Way.” He might wonder about the name for a moment and then move on. On the bus, though, the riders heard her sing her Spanish version of “My Way,” and then learned that La Lupe was called “the Queen of Latin Soul” and “the woman with the devil in her body,” who sang in Cuba for personalities such as Hemingway and Picasso, then died in poverty at 575 East 140th Street.

Larry McDonald, a musician from Manhattan who said he’d always liked the Bronx, “even when it was burning,” was amazed. “I didn’t know what to expect, but this wasn’t it,” he said with a smile.

Although there were many things about the South Bronx that McDonald was learning for the first time, what stood out for him was a mention of the city’s proposal to build a $375 million jail in Hunts Points, accompanied by a quote from Rep. José Serrano, who said: “I’m not one of those who says, ‘Not in my backyard.’ But I will say, ‘not always in my backyard.’”

The city is doing positive “stuff” everywhere but here, McDonald concluded.

Linda Jones, a resident of Manhattan, who has spent little time in the Bronx, was glad of her new outlook on the South Bronx, and said she was even brought to tears several times during the performance.

It’s “so ridiculous,” she said, that people she knows consider “the Bronx not to be part of New York.” The show opened her eyes, Jones said. “I would have never thought of the Bronx as a beautiful place, because of media representation.”

While members of the audience, new to the Bronx, found the journey was a revelation, a longtime Bronx resident criticized “Provenance” and its premise, saying the performance failed to reveal the real change in the borough.

“The South Bronx has had stereotypes since the late 60’s early 70’s–stereotypes of urban despair, urban destruction, of drugs and crime, said Bill Aguado, who recently stepped down after three decades as executive director of the Bronx Council on the Arts. “Well, they just reinforced the stereotypes that people had.

“I’ve seen progress over the last almost 40 years. I’ve seen people, I’ve worked with people, that refused to move and made a commitment to the community, so I am not trying to whitewash. What they said I just thought that they fell in to a type of social, cultural journalism that reinforced various stereotypes and various images of the people.”

The show’s director, Melanie Joseph, agrees that the hard-working people who stayed in the Bronx when so many fled, worked hard to improve their community.

“Changes are inevitable. Good and bad, all changes will participate in the history of the neighborhood,” said Joseph, explaining the show’s premise. “The South Bronx, she said, “rebuilt itself.”

She singled out “Mott Haven especially,” because, she said, “Developers did not build it; community groups did.”

A version of this story appeared in the Winter 2009 issue of the Mott Haven Herald.