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Theater Company Becomes a Prominent Voice for Interfaith Hospital

 New Brooklyn Theater's "The Death of Bessie Smith" helped raise awareness for the struggling Interfaith Hospital, which has been battling closure.
New Brooklyn Theater Has Become a Voice for Interfaith Hospital
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BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — When the New Brooklyn Theater debuted "The Death of Bessie Smith" on Jan. 9 inside of Interfaith Medical Center, the Bed-Stuy company had just a few performances under its belt.

Now after six weeks of sold-out performances inside the struggling hospital, the New Brooklyn Theater has become a voice in the fight to keep the hospital open, while raising awareness for their new company in the community.

"We had to grow that much faster," said theater co-founder Jeff Strabone. "We've managed that transition with lightning speed, I'm proud to say."

The company's production of "The Death of Bessie Smith," an Edward Albee play that tells the story of the blues legend's death by neglect from an all-white hospital, worked as both a piece of entertainment and a forum to discuss the issues surrounding the hospital's possible closure.

When Strabone, a Cobble Hill activist, and co-founder Jonathan Solari came up with the idea for the play in December they decided to act quickly, unsure of when the hospital may close. Many actors were cast just a week before the show debuted.

For the first two weeks the performers worked pro bono, offering their services to a cause they each deemed worthy, said actor Edwin Lee Gibson.

"I've always thought the role of the artist is to be a conduit to whatever discourse is going on," Gibson said.

Many of the performers became as involved in the movement to save the hospital as the community. After a Jan. 17 performance, some of the actors helped protest the diversion of ambulances from the facility.

"This place would become condominiums," Gibson said. "The people in this condominium would eventually need a hospital."

After each performance the actors and producers engaged the audience in a discussion, often joined by local politicians. One talkback session featured legendary activist, actor and musician Harry Belafonte.

As performances sold out, the theater added more dates. After six weeks 22 of 28 shows were sold out.

Now the theater has become synonymous with the hospital, with glowing reviews in both local and international media. And that good will comes as the group is looking to expand into a physical theater on Fulton Street.

"We're trying to bring attention to Interfaith and restore a theater to 1215 Fulton, so people know who we are and what were about," Strabone said.

That building was once called the Regent Theater, but for some it is more well-known as the Slave Theater, which operated in the 1980s and 1990s as a performance venue and a host to civil rights leaders and Rev. Al Sharpton.

Right now the building is owned by Fulton Halsey Development Group. Although Strabone said Fulton Halsey has expressed interest in leasing out the theater, the two parties have not officially come to a deal.

Complicating the situation are Clarence and Omar Hardy, a father and son who worked with former Slave Theater owner John Phillips and who claim ownership of the building. A court case deciding the building's ownership was dismissed last year, but the family said they plan on filing another suit, and has been squatting at the space for months.

For now Strabone said the company is happy with the role they've been able to play in the community, and the attention the theater has received.

"Our goal was to draw publicity to the hospital, and to provoke a conversation about health, race and class," Strabone said. "And through the play and the talkbacks, we've succeeded with that."