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‘Fear City’ tackles Bronx’s year in Hell

By Staff | Jul 21, 2017

Image courtesy of CATF

For many, the 1970s were a difficult time. The Bronx was burning, the economic outlook was dire and crime was rampant. For playwright Kara Lee Corthron, New York City in 1977 was the perfect backdrop for her world premiere masterpiece, “Welcome to Fear City.”

The play centers on a Bronx neighborhood in ’77 where E, a young African-American man, longs to become a poet amid economic turmoil and family crises. All of this drama tells the story of a community trying to get by in the midst of crime, social apathy, poverty, and hip-hop.

“I was fascinated by that time period – a time when a lot of people didn’t want to be in New York,” Corthron said. “There is a documentary called ‘The Coldest Year in Hell’ about NYC at this time. I’m attracted to chaos and really interested in this period of time. I’ll write about it again, I’m just not sure how yet.”

According to Corthron, she was not privy to the social and economic turmoil which plagued NYC at this time.

“(My interest in this subject) started with a book called ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning. It was fascinating for me because I didn’t grow up there, and I didn’t realize that in the ’70s, there were a lot of fires in the south Bronx,” Corthron said. “I wanted to know why there was so much destruction, crime and poverty. New York was bankrupt and President (Gerald) Ford said – essentially – for New York City to drop dead.”

While many writers have one character they connect too specifically, Corthron said many of the characters in “Welcome to Fear City” have a piece of her in them.

“I always relate to my characters – some more and some less. There is a bit of myself in all the characters. I relate to the protagonist, E, a lot. In some ways I know what it is like to be an awkward, young African-American. There is a part of me that really connects with Rat,” Corthron said. “The character is kind of like the devil on my shoulder – he is my fantasy proxy for that.”

At the heart of the play is a deep desire for something greater; to be something greater.

“(E’s) sister has a desire to be someone larger, to get out of her situation without knowing how or what it would look like. She wants her family to be safe. There is a speech in the middle where you see her acknowledging what she wants, but not sure how to get there,” Corthron said. “They all have longings that I can relate to and that the audience will connect with.”

While Corthron has made a name for herself as a playwright, she is also an accomplished author.

“I write young adult fiction, but a lot of different people read my books. My newest book, ‘The Truth of Right Now,’ is a contemporary novel about two teens in NYC right now – a white girl and black boy. They’ve both been ostracized from their social circles for different reasons. They find themselves in some adult situations that they aren’t able to handle,” Corthorn said. “The boy doesn’t get where she is coming from and vice versa. At one point he is stopped by the police for no reason, and she doesn’t understand.”

Audience members are sure to walk away with individual thoughts, but there is one thing Corthorn said she wants everyone to walk away feeling.

“I want people to be energized and empowered afterward. It isn’t a play where this is my thesis or argument. It is a story, but by the end it is about the experience. I want people to feel satisfied and willing to talk about the issues the play deals with. I don’t want the dialogue to stop with the play,” Corthorn said. “I hope people go with an open mind and really appreciate how special an experience CATF is.”

“Welcome to Fear City” is a world premiere play directed by Nicole A. Watson and stars Dyllon Burnside as E; Adrian Kiser as Nessy; Cherene Snow as Wanda; Yaegel T. Welch as Rat; Vincent Ramirez as Cheky; and Bryce Michael Wood as Jacques. The production runs at the Marinoff Theater. Remaining performances include: Tonight and July 29 at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Thursday and July 30 at 2 p.m.; and Sunday at 6 p.m.