New Play, ‘Alternating Currents,’ Electrifies a Queens Neighborhood

The remarkable idealism of Electchester -- and its complicated response to a changing NYC.

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Alternating Currents
A rendering of the set of "Alternating Currents," by designer David Esler.

The playwright Adam Kraar grew up in Virginia, India, Thailand and Singapore, so when he explains that he writes about “cross-cultural clashes and connections” in plays that range from “farcical comedies to poetic dramas,” the self-observation seems both plausible and inevitable. What makes someone laugh and think, for Kraar, is also very often the same thing; perhaps he traces this duality to the day his mother took four-year-old Adam to a musical. Onstage, he saw a woman at her dressing table, wearing a slip, set to sing a song. He blurted out “Mommy, why is that lady taking off her clothes?” Electrical energy, Kraar remembers, surged across the auditorium, and in that moment he also realized that the audience was collectively laughing at his remark. Kraar is drawn to what will “surprise, provoke, exalt and/or thoroughly amuse a live audience,” and in that spirit he declined to furnish the name of the slip-wearing performer in question.

Electricity also surges through Kraar’s latest play, Alternating Currents. It’s the third part of a series, “Five Boroughs/One City,” produced by The Working Theater, an Off-Broadway company. Five playwright-director teams have been commissioned to create a play that is informed and inspired by a distinct NYC neighborhood. Each play is produced Off-Broadway but, perhaps more crucially, each play will also tour each borough.

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Alternating Currents, directed by Kareem Fahmy, is inspired by a large cooperative housing complex in Flushing, Queens, called Electchester. The history of the complex dates back to 1949, when it was founded by the electrician’s union, Local 3. The story of the play turns on young, interracial newlyweds, Luke and Elena, who discover their place in this unusually tight-knit community. Luke and Elena love many things about Electchester — its friendly neighbors, its below-market costs, its connection to their union — but they also discover a community full of contradictions about race and class. How much of their identities are they willing to give up to belong?

Alternating Currents
Playwright Adam Kraar.

I wanted to talk to Kraar not only because he’s a remarkably solid craftsman but because the local setting of Alternating Currents hits very close to home. I grew up on the corner of Kissena Boulevard and Jewel Avenue in Flushing (sometimes called Kew Gardens Hills) — I mean, the corner building, the corner apartment, the corner room, at the top of a hill. This was part of a public housing complex called Pomonok, built at roughly the same time as Electchester, and literally one block away. These adjacent sites, many acres in total, sport dozens of buildings on what once was a golf course in the early 20th century. By the time my parents moved to Pomonok in 1975, when I was 7, the area still had its very strong working-class roots; for us kids — and there were a lot of us — it was also memorably diverse. Not every NYC neighborhood was (or is) well-integrated, but I don’t remember explicitly racial strife, suspicion and hatred hanging over us, at least that I recall. My friends were all from the neighborhood and fully across the racial spectrum.

What I remember much more, perhaps because I was much more conscious of it, was the specter of class.

If you lived in Pomonok, you were working poor. If you lived in Electchester, you were middle class. Upward mobility was easier then, and my parents worked hard and, in time, they joined that middle class — and moved out. So Alternating Currents, it seems to me, is almost an imagination of what going home could mean — and that was home for 14 years of my life. It’s the neighborhood that defined me then. I think for part of me it always will.

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Alternating Currents is being performed citywide through May 26 (previews were held at Local 3, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, on Jewel Avenue in Electchester). Now, through May 20, you can see the play in Manhattan at Urban Stages (259 W. 30th St.). Up in the Bronx, you can catch a performance at the Bronx Museum (1040 Grand Concourse) on Wednesday, May 16. On Staten Island, you can see Alternating Currents at Snug Harbor Cultural Center (on the island’s north shore) from May 22 through May 24. On May 26, there will then be a performance in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn at the RiseBoro Youth Center (1474 Gates Ave.).

The cast of Alternating Currents includes Robert Arcaro, Jason Bowen, Rheaume Crenshaw, Antoinette LaVecchia, Brian Sgambati and Liba Vaynberg.

For tickets to any performance — and for information on Alternating Currents, the Five Boroughs/One City project, or The Working Theater (whose artistic director, Mark Plesant, is one of my city’s great unsung heroes) — please click here.

And now, 5 questions Adam Kraar has never been asked:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

“What did it cost you to write this play?” I didn’t quite understand this when my grad school playwriting teacher asked me that question — but now I fully understand that he wasn’t asking about my bank account.

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

“What on earth made you think this play was finished?”

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

“Would you consider changing the main character to the tree?” The play had a tree as a minor character, but it was not what the play was about.

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I grew up in a public housing project called Pomonok, a block from Electchester. Why set Alternating Currents in Electchester? Any personal connection? How did you research this play?

Unlike almost all my works, the setting of Alternating Currents was not my idea. The Working Theater, for its “Five Boroughs/One City” initiative, has venue partners in each borough. For Queens, that venue partner is Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers — in Electchester. The Working Theater commissioned director Gaye-Taylor Upchurch and me to work on a play inspired by that particular neighborhood… Over the course of a year, we visited there many times, interviewing individuals and groups as well as attending a variety of community events. The Working Theater encouraged us to create a piece of theater reflective of what residents there wanted the rest of NYC to know about their community.

The differences between Electchester and Pomonok, just across Parsons Boulevard, are striking. What was startling was the variety of different perceptions among Electchester residents about Pomonok, which ranged from “Yeah, my cousin grew up there” to deeply disturbing remarks about race and class. Electchester was founded by the electrician’s union in the 1950s, and many of its residents are still connected with the “brotherhood.” In many ways, it’s an unusually close-knit community. Yet we sometimes saw and heard strange contradictions between the residents’ kindness and their blind spots about their neighbors. Alternating Currents is a story inspired by both the remarkable idealism of this community and its complicated response to a changing NYC.

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What do you want to know, if anything, about making a life in this part of Queens which, even after writing the play, even after seeing it rehearsed, even after seeing it performed, still feels like it somehow eludes you?

The play doesn’t begin performances till after the deadline for this interview, so I’ll wriggle out of answering fully! The first performances will be in the union hall at Electchester, in front of many people whose stories deeply influenced the writing of this play. Will they be angry or disappointed by the less-than-flattering aspects of the portrait of their neighborhood? Have I honored their generosity and exceptional community spirit? Will they see themselves any differently? Also: the play asks, “What are people willing to give up in order to belong?” What am I willing to give up in order to belong?

If you could commission yourself to write three more plays about NYC working people set in specific neighborhoods and sub-neighborhoods, which areas, and types of working people, would you pick and why?

Lower East Side (below Houston Street), around the turn of the last century. While many stories of that culturally fertile moment in American history have already been told, the legacy of that era of intense immigration continues to resonate strongly in our society.
Borough Park, Brooklyn — a neighborhood that juxtaposes the look and the values of a much earlier era with a diverse and changing NYC. Working class people live side-by-side with “white collar” workers; a close-knit community of Orthodox Jews is also becoming a neighborhood for many other cultures. Red Hook, Brooklyn — a neighborhood that’s transformed radically, several times, since its days as a community of dock workers and factory workers. With the shoreline endangered by rising sea levels, this neighborhood is likely to face even more rapid change.