For more than a century, New York City residents who couldn't afford a burial, or whose bodies went unclaimed, have been laid to rest in the potter's field on Hart Island. The location is hard to access, and many people are unaware of its history. But a new play that theater company Mason Holdings is currently presenting at The Gym at Judson, meditates on the island's role, and New Yorkers' relationships with it.
The first thing you see on entering the theater is the trench. Tall platforms on the stage wings frame a field of mulch, littered with half-buried objects: a telephone, a plastic cooler, a lifeguard's red rescue buoy, all seemingly lost or abandoned, forgotten where they lay. A tower looms over the stage, with a window gazing out toward the audience like a guard's view port.
As the lights drop, eerily clanging music plays and projections cover the theater’s back wall, it becomes clear the tower is actually a recording studio. The Narrator, a blonde woman played by Hart Island playwright, Tracy Weller, enters hurriedly and sprays the door handle with disinfectant before removing her mask, apologizing profusely to an invisible person on the other side of the soundproof booth for being late, for being so cautious.
“It's just, I don't know who's been here,” the Narrator says. “Not that I don't trust, but just, I want to be safe, you to be safe and I wouldn't want to get anyone else sick."
She’s there for a recording gig, taping narration about New York City’s rivers and islands. The script throws her off with its focus on their ugly histories. That includes Hart Island, the often-overlooked, real-life final resting place for thousands of New Yorkers. You hear he Narrator stumble out of shock reading her lines, echoing Weller’s own experience when she first learned about Hart Island several years ago.
“I spend a lot of time worrying about stories that are endangered and have the potential to just sort of slip into oblivion," Weller said in an interview with Gothamist. "Hart Island is definitely one of those places that sort of embodies just that. The things that we don't want to see, we put on those islands. And it just sort of raises this bigger question about what do we do with what we don't want to deal with as human beings.”
Hart Island is not documentary theater: the characters are all fictional archetypes, only identified in the script by their initials and the fragments of personal stories they share in monologues and brief exchanges with the other characters on stage. There’s a woman whose infant child was buried on Hart Island; a nurse whose patient was interred there during the first wave of COVID-19; a former Rikers Island guard who volunteered to oversee incarcerated people, just to get out of the jail for a few hours; a former Rikers inmate, who helped dig the trenches.
It’s tempting to see Hart Island as a play about castaways, but it's more of a meditation on connection. In the beginning, the characters appear one at a time, looking and talking past each other, but as they begin reaching out to one another, helping bear each others’ burdens, it becomes more about the necessity of community to mourn and heal, and the need for accessibility to the real-life island for family and loved ones to find closure.
“Every city has a potter's field, but I think they're accessible; if you want to get to a potter's field in here, you can't,” said Nora Cole, who plays the character M.R. “I do remember during the pandemic there being burials there because of the volume, which kind of brought it into light a little bit."
Hart Island did become a temporary burial site for hundreds of New Yorkers who died of COVID-19 during the first wave in 2020, when local morgues were overwhelmed. Many early victims of the AIDS epidemic were buried there, too, along with thousands of people whose families didn’t have the money for a burial, or whose bodies were never claimed. The city’s Parks Department has pledged to make the facility easier to visit, and Weller hopes her play will raise awareness about that need, for those whose loved ones are buried there.
"Anyone that has someone buried on Hart island does not have access to that grave; they don't have access to a kind of mourning and grieving that they should have,” Weller said. “I think Hart Island is a very complicated place. I also think it's a very, very beautiful place. The question is access, and the question is visibility."
Hart Island runs through April 9th at the Gym at Judson.