Nilaja Sun Goes Back Home to “Pike St.”

With "Pike St.," her first solo show since 2006's "No Child...," Nilaja Sun explores her native Lower East Side through the lens of a family weathering a brutal hurricane.

“Too ra loo ra,” we screeched. “Too ra loo ra yaaaaay!!!”

My cousin Shawna and I were blasting Dexys Midnight Runners on the radio and doing our best and weirdest version of an Irish jig while our Puerto Rican grandma laughed in her wheelchair, tapping her left foot to the strong beat. “Come On Eileen. Oh I swear. At this moment. You mean everythiiiiiing.” We sang at the top of our lungs, and I tingled at the thought of having a man say those words to me one day.

It was 1984. Thanksgiving. The Lower East Side.

“Dinner’s almost ready, locas,” my mom gently chimed in. Exhausted from another bout of chemo, she was determined to do Thanksgiving right this year. Thirteen-pound butterball turkey, mashed potatoes, candied yams, string beans, butter doused buns, my Italian step pop’s antipasto, apple pie and plenty of rum and cokes. Mom would remain undefeated. As we watched my pop’s annual carving and cursing tradition, we sat by the open window, our restless feet still jigging under the table. “Too ra loo ra yaaay,” we whispered and giggled. The Twin Towers twinkled in the window behind us, as if to say, “Gobble Gobble, locas!” The crisp fall air made a whistling sound as we gave thanks for yet another year, yet another turkey, yet another day on Earth.

“No matter how far away I have traveled, the Lower East Side stayed with me.”

Thirty years later, I have come back. To that same neighborhood with the same memories. No matter how far away I have traveled, the Lower East Side stayed with me. She brought the spiciness of her sofrito, the hard crust of her bialy and the sizzle of her pork fried rice. I walked the earth searching for a home that look like the L.E.S. but found no place where the synagogues flanked the bodegas that caressed the housing projects by the river. No one understood my Spanglish, and they were confused by my mishegas.

I have come back, and I am now a woman. I am now an artist. I have experienced that delicious tingle when my first love declared, “You mean everything.” I have traveled the world. I have seen those twinkling Twin Towers fall along with my broken heart.

I have come back with a new solo piece called “Pike St.,” lovingly titled after an often overlooked street in the Big Apple. A block from the East River. Flanked by Chinatown. Perched under the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge.

I have come back with the theater company Epic Theatre Ensemble. Having hired me as their first employee a day after 9/11, they have helped me to develop “Pike St.,” as they did my last solo piece, “No Child…” Their mission is to create bold and courageous work with and for diverse communities, promoting vital discourse and social change. Because of Epic and other citywide arts education programs, I have realized my other calling as a teaching artist. Working with them in arts-poor NYC high schools has given me the ground I need to travel the world with my message that every child deserves an arts education.

I have come back to give back. This time, with a play about a family during a storm of the century. Three years ago, the reality of Hurricane Sandy hit New York hard. Some areas harder than others. Some left in the darkness for longer than what would have been believed in the “greatest city in the world.” The Lower East Side was one of those places. As I watched the images, I was stunned. The dark streets. The flooded bodegas and closed schools. The lack of help from the higher ups. But then there was the other footage that was no shock at all. The neighbors helping neighbors. The stories of silent heroism. The angels who looked after the elderly and disabled and forgotten. This is the Lower East Side I have always known. This is the Loisaida I’ve always loved. This is the home I’ve come back to.

nilaja sun, pike st., epic theatre

Nilaja Sun performing at Abrons Art Center as a child. Photo Credit: Nilaja Sun.

I’ve always dreamt of returning, but it wasn’t until last year that I got my chance to make the leap. After doing several early readings and workshops of “Pike St.” in and out of town, it dawned on me that there could be only one place to truly start this journey — the Abrons Arts Center at the Henry Street Settlement. Jay Wegman, the artistic director at the Abrons Arts Center, has been moving mountains and feng shuing the center, opening it to a greater and more groundbreaking population of artists. This year marks their centennial. I have a personal connection with the HSS. For more than a decade, my mother was the director of Home Care Services, a program at the Henry Street Settlement that provided home care services to the elderly, disabled and those living with HIV.  Across the street I — and thousands of others — took art, dance and music classes at the Abrons. “Again,” I can still hear my Russian piano teacher echoing, the smell of her cigarette-scented hands directing my fingers. “Again! Until it is right.” With tears in my eyes, I practiced religiously until I got it. 30 years later, I can still hear her words in my mind as I rehearse “Pike St.” a floor above that piano room. I’ll rehearse until it is right.

What does it mean to go back home? So many of us artists make our livings elsewhere, in bigger cities, bigger towns, for higher pay and cooler associations, miles from where we grew up, away from the values and people that shaped us, whether we rejoice in our upbringing or understandably run screaming from it. We’ve made our lives our own, and good on us. But what of the people we left behind? Do they not too benefit from our shine if they don’t have the money for a ticket to our show? Do they miss out on the experience that others witness because they are miles and lifetimes away? And what of those coming up in our old towns and neighborhoods? The young. Who is there to guide them, direct them, illuminate them about art and the makers of it? Why not us?

I am lucky that my going back home simply means hopping the F train. Perhaps for you that means planes, trains and automobiles. Perhaps it means a swallowing up of pride or a passing through a door you promised you’d never reopen. But what if it simply means calling up an old dance teacher to visit her dance class where you learned that the beat of a song can sound oddly like the song in your heart? What if it means honestly talking to her students about the life of an artist and how it’s beautiful, and how it sucks, and how it may actually be worth it all in the end? What if it means showing them a move or two you’ve learned along the way so that they too can hear the song in their heart? What if it just means showing up?

Thirty years later, I skip to rehearsal on that same street, with those same memories, with that same crisp fall air whistling that same sweet song. Too ra loo ra yaaaaaay! I am home, and this means everything.

“Pike St.” ran at the Abrons Art Center from November 10 to December 19, 2015.


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