As you first venture north across the Harlem River, comfortably ensconced in a retro charter tour bus, a voice inquires, "Are you wondering where we're going? When we get there will you think—This is nice. This is new. This is old. This is urban. These are the real people. These are the other people. This is the old New York... whatever. You shouldn't think." For such a thought-provoking journey, that's a funny instruction, but it seems intended to dispel any preconceived notions about the destination, one of the five poorest congressional districts in the United States. That would be the South Bronx, and the voice is addressing you through headphones provided by the Foundry Theatre, a company with seemingly boundless inspiration and ingenuity.
The ninety minute poetic-historic odyssey, called The Provenance of Beauty, begins on 121st Street in Harlem, where visitors board a bus parked across the street from the Harlem Community Justice Center. Throughout the journey, tour guide Sarah Nina Hayon periodically rises from the front row to address the passengers with wry commentary, but the bulk of the "travelogue" is pre-recorded and communicated through the headphones. It's written by poet Claudia Rankine, who was raised in the Bronx and spent months interviewing long-time residents for this piece, which drifts dreamlike through Hunts Point, Mott Haven, and the cringe-worthy gentrification creation So Bro.
Points of interest include the old American Banknote Building, the massive Con Ed station with the fake condo facade, Barretto Point Park (sandwiched between a fertilizer factory and a sewage treatment plant), graffiti at the Point community center, the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center, and Hunts Point Palace; once a salsa hotspot, now a Pentecostal church. Along the way, Rankine's spellbinding text, recorded by two actors, reveals itself as the proud yet resentful voice of the Bronx itself, and draws provocative connections between past and present, potential and reality, borough and city, and—most affectingly—the exterior of the bus and the inside of the visitors' heads.
These recorded voices are greatly enhanced by Geoff Abbas's exquisite sound design, which uses microphones on the exterior of the bus to make the sounds of the sidewalks incredibly intimate—a man sitting outside a construction site coughs, and you hear it through your headphones. Throughout the tour, spontaneous moments of street theater reveal themselves; a boy lobs a basketball to his friend over a shop awning, a tattered American flag is spotted through the bus skylight, neighbors glare at the gawkers in the bus. Near the journey's brilliant conclusion, as the bus pauses by an overly optimistic So Bro condo, Barbara Corcoran is derisively quoted, saying, "The South Bronx is the last housing frontier close to New York City." So if the Bronx voices speaking through headphones contain notes of bitterness, you really can't blame them; most of us visiting from "New York City" won't be back, only our sewage.