Blues travels to beleaguered Bed-Stuy hospital for site-specific play

These hospital activist-actors have got the blues and they cannot be satisfied, so they are combining their passions by staging a play about late blues legend Bessie Smith inside a beleaguered Bedford-Stuyvesant hospital.

The New Brooklyn Theater is putting on Edward Albee’s play “The Death of Bessie Smith” at Interfaith Medical Center, which has been in the process of closing for nearly a year but just got a few-month lease on life thanks to a cash infusion from the state. The faltering healthcare facility is the perfect venue for dramatizing the plight of the hospital and the mostly uninsured people of color who make up the bulk of its patient base, say the play’s organizers.

“If Interfaith were to close, that would be, in public health terms, a racist and classist outcome,” said Jeff Strabone, a board member of the Cobble Hill Association and the theater troupe board’s chairman.

The play, written and set in 1959, tells the story of the blues singer Bessie Smith being severely injured in a car crash and dying after being refused admission at an all-white hospital. The story was widely believed for decades and, though Smith did die as a result of an auto wreck, the racist element of the story has been proven to be apocryphal.

Strabone has gone to great lengths as an activist opposing the closure of Interfaith and Cobble Hill’s Long Island College Hospital, including getting arrested alongside mayor-elect DeBlasio at a demonstration. So it comes as no surprise that he went the extra mile to contact Albee, the elderly playwright of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” fame, to get permission to stage the Smith play.

The show has not been performed in New York since 1967, but when Albee heard about the possible closure of Interfaith, he agreed immediately, with the stipulation that the actors volunteer their time and the company make admission free. The result will be a lively community forum on the normally wonk-y topic of hospital management and funding, the act-ivists hope.

“This is not just for entertainment, but it’s a vehicle for discussion,” said Claudette Brady, who is on the board of the theater company and is organizing post-play panel discussions.

Strabone was worried about what would happen to the production if the hospital closed in January, but now that the hospital has won a temporary reprieve from the state, the show is back on track.

The few-month service extension is not enough to satisfy him, though.

“We have a saying in the theater that the show must go on,” said Strabone. “But society doesn’t feel the same way about hospitals and health care, and that has to change.”

“The Death of Bessie Smith” at Interfaith Medical Center (1545 Atlantic Avenue at Albany Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, www.newbrooklyntheater.com). Jan. 9–12 and Jan. 16–19, 7:30 pm on Fridays and Saturdays, 2 pm on Sundays. Free.

Reach reporter Danielle Furfaro at [email protected] or by calling (718) 260-2511. Follow her at twitter.com/DanielleFurfaro.