Walking the streets of today’s Lower East Side, the fist-pumping chant of “Gabba Gabba Hey” seems almost totally drowned out by the hiss and churn and espresso machines. Vaporizing along with the steam are many neighborhood artists, who are no longer able to afford the ever-rising rent and cost of living.
But not all have surrendered yet. Each year, the Theater for the New City marshals the neighborhood’s forces with the Lower East Side Festival of the Arts. Now in its 19th year, the celebration tips its hat and heart to the long list of great artists who’ve lived, created and performed in the area throughout its history, including George and Ira Gershwin, Charlie Parker, Fanny Brice, Eugene O’Neill, Mark Twain, Molly Picon and the Ramones.
For three days beginning May 23, music, poetry, dance, theater, film, comedy and aerial acts take to the stages of the theater and outside among the public. Among those scheduled this year are Academy Award-winner F. Murray Abraham, singer and actress Tammy Grimes, comedian Penny Arcade and musician Phoebe Legere. Scenes from a new musical adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, as well as theater pieces by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz, will also be performed.
This year’s theme — Art Stands Up to Power. Corporations Are Not People, Green vs. Greed — runs through all events, including the exhibition of paintings, photographs and sculptures from 37 Lower East Side and East Village artists in the theater lobby.
Perhaps the most communal feeling, however, can be found at Saturday’s Block Party held on East 10th Street, where local vendors of food, handicrafts, clothing and other items are invited to sell at no cost, all to the accompaniment of still more music, magic, poetry readings, dance and ventriloquism.
The fact that the festival is free of charge reflects the embracing, welcoming philosophy that stands in stark contrast to the growing exclusionary vibe of the Lower East Side. “We want the most diverse audience as possible,” festival founder Crystal Field emphasizes. “This is an important festival because it shows the cultural jewels and hidden gems of the Lower East Side.” Gabba Gabba Hey, indeed.
If you go
Lower East Side Festival of the Arts
Theater for the New City,
155 First Avenue,