Strike the stage: Musical about labor organizing takes over Bed-Stuy bar

Many hands make light work: The cast of “Ybor City” will turn a Bedford-Stuyvesant bar into a cigar factory.
Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

This bar serves up an old-fashioned musical!

A long-gestating musical about union organizers in 1918 Florida will take the floor of a Bedford-Stuyvesant saloon every Wednesday night in February. “Ybor City,” which starts its run at Rustik Tavern on Feb. 5, is named after a community in Tampa, Florida, where Cuban workers in cigar rolling factories fought for workers’ rights. 

The show’s book writer says that the story of labor organizers more than a century ago still resonates with modern audiences, who are often disconnected from the labor movement.  

“People have forgotten how hard it was to form a union,” said Anita Gonzalez.

Gonzalez’s grandfather was a cigar roller in Tampa, which first sparked her interest in the era. The first stage incarnation of her project was a staged reading called “Cigar Memories,” that she held in 2003. Since then, the work has gone through multiple revisions, and she teamed up with composer and lyricist Dan Furman in 2012. The two collaborated to adapt the story into a musical, using tunes inspired by a wide array of historic genres, including union rally songs, Latin music, and choral music. 

February’s run of performances will be the first time the work has been performed by a full cast of professional actors — but Gonzalez says it’s still not in its final form, and that the workshopping process is an essential part of helping the performance reach its full potential. 

“I’m not calling it’s the last iteration, I want to see what it looks like that way,” she said. 

The show is co-produced by Brooklyn Tavern Theatre, a group that stages plays in bars during slow nights of the week. 

Gonzalez said that performing inside a bar gives the actors more creative freedom, freeing them from the physical constraints of a normal stage and allowing the entire watering hole to become Ybor City.

“Instead of trying to create the world of Ybor City — the actor can just stand up and say ‘Look: we’re in Ybor City,’” she said. “It makes it more immediate and more direct.” 

“Ybor City” at Rustik Tavern  [471 Dekalb Ave. between Kent and Franklin avenues in Bedford-Stuyvesant, (718) 213–8885, www.yborcitythemusical.com]. Feb. 5, 12, 18–19 and 26 at 7 pm. Free ($20 for reserved seating).