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Jackson Heights Theater Brings Diverse Tales to Hell's Kitchen

NEW YORK CITY — A Nepali woman and a Mexican man fall in love despite speaking different languages. An Indian sweets shop owner struggles to keep her store open. A Dominican manicurist awaits a marriage proposal from her Chinese-Jewish boyfriend.

All of these scenes take place in "the Jackson Heights Trilogy," a series of plays created by the Jackson Heights-based company Theatre 167 that is inspired by the neighborhood, and attempts to recreate Jackson Heights' diversity on the stage.

The three plays — "167 Tongues," "You Are Now the Owner of This Suitcase," and "Jackson Heights 3 A.M." — ran last year at the Queens Theatre and the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center, among other local venues.

Now, the trilogy, featuring 18 playwrights and 37 actors in 93 roles, will have a four-week run at the 777 Theatre in Hell's Kitchen, at 777 8th Ave., starting Feb. 8.

The plays focus on the different cultures and ethnicities that make up Jackson Heights, and how they relate to one another, said Theatre 167 artistic director Ari Laura Kreith.

"I really want to do theater that's addressing these cultural conversations," Kreith said. "So I just thought it was time to create a company that was specifically dedicated to that."

Born in Davis, Calif., Kreith said she grew up all over the world, as her mathematician father was constantly moving to take new opportunities and study the way math exists across different cultures.

Kreith found herself living in cities all over Eastern and Western Europe for weeks or months at a time. The result, Kreith said, was a growing interest in learning about cultures outside of her own, and led to her moving to Jackson Heights in 2005.

"Living in Jackson Heights was the closest I came to the experience that feels very normal and necessary to me, but is in fact somewhat special and unique," Kreith said. "It's one of the things that makes Jackson Heights really extraordinary, in sort of allowing cultures to come together."

In order to celebrate those cultures, in 2010 Kreith created Theatre 167, named after the number of languages rumored to be spoken at Elmhurst Hospital

That hospital, just south of Roosevelt Avenue in Elmhurst, is also one of the scenes in "167 Tongues." In that scene a Rwandan night nurse has to negotiate the 167 languages in the hospital emergency room.

In another scene that studies the ever-changing demographics of the neighborhood, two Irish ghosts haunt apartments to try and fix relationships. In addition to looking at Jackson Heights' shifting demographics over the years, the story also tackles school integration and the history of racial conflict in New York.

In "You Are Now the Owner of This Suitcase," playwrights stroll around the neighborhood listening to folk tales community members grew up with, and turned them into a collection of all-ages, "magic realist" stories, Kreith said.

And in "Jackson Heights 3 A.M.," playwrights spent the night walking around Jackson Heights between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. interacting with people and using their stories as inspiration, including cab drivers, sex workers, police officers and insomniacs.

The diversity in writers helped to give life to the story, told from multiple angles, Kreith said.

"Different writers have different cultural perspectives, which is one of the things that makes this so unique," said Kreith, who conceived and directs the pieces.

During the four-week run, which ends on March 3, there will be alternating shows once a day on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, followed by all three shows on Saturday and two shows on Sunday.

Each of the plays are about two hours long, and on Saturday, there will be a show at noon, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. It will be the first time all three shows will play back-to-back.

"I fell so deeply in love with both the process and the work we were doing," Kreith said. "It felt really important to acknowledge and share that experience."