As NYU students bustle in and around the West Village, grabbing cookies at Lipton Hall’s dining hall or popping into the Kimmel Center for a quick club meeting, it’s easy to forget that this city, which our university so proudly claims to be in and of, comes with a storied past that goes far beyond the brownstone apartments and historic arch. Vertigo Theater Company’s new production of “Street Children,” which opened on Nov. 30 at the New Ohio Theatre, gives an achingly poignant story of what used to be the reality of the Village — a home for the city’s transgender and queer community who rallied around the piers and created a thriving community around balls, vogue dancing and families not of blood, but of love.
The play cleverly played with the theme of ghosts, all too easy to see in half-remodeled buildings and peeling paint on old signs in the city. Playwright Pia Scala-Zankel took it one step further, however, and made her focal point Gina (Mj Rodriguez) the mother of the House of Diamonte, who the audience learns was killed in a brutal attack of homophobia. Gina flits in and out of scenes, voguing and giving silent looks of understanding to her grieving friends. Ghosts of the other characters’ pasts float around as well. Since nearly all of the characters are transgender women, there are several past lives that the women are forced to confront.
The acting, on the part of all the cast members and Eve Lindley (as Jamie) and JP Moraga (as Angela), was superb and so authentic that it was at times almost painful to watch. The characters were particularly good because the actors had excellently-written parts to work with and a plot that grew organically and developed amongst twisting, twining dancers and was given flavor with costumes and colloquial dialogue. Depth was not spared in the writing, and Scala-Zankel managed to let every character breathe without losing focus or feeling disjointed.
Most importantly, “Street Children” gives a voice and a human side to a culture that for too long was outlawed and attacked. It’s upsettingly little-known that the West Village only became home to upscale apartments and bougie organic markets after its former residents died of AIDS and were forced to move out as their landlords raised rent to prices they simply couldn’t afford in acts of blatant homophobia. In particular, the play gives a voice to the trans and queer people of color that are erased from the stories that make it through.
Even the nuances of the concept of trans women passing for cisgender and the ways that relatives of trans people deal with their deaths, mis-gendering and dead-naming their loved ones and erasing their histories, created ghosts in two senses.
Despite all of this, the play still manages to work in snappy humor and touching moments that keep it from being so heavy as to turn off less sympathetic audiences. “Street Children” is the story and the reality of our city, and one that deserves nothing less than the talent it got.
“Street Children” is playing at the New Ohio Theatre at 154 Christopher St. through Dec. 17.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Dec. 5 print edition. Email Hailey Nuthals at [email protected]