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Up at the Old Nuyorican

Upstairs at the NuyoricanKim Davis

Climbing the rickety, makeshift stairway of the century old former tenement building on East Third Street that houses the Nuyorican Poets Café there was little to foretell the treasure trove Kim Davis and I would encounter. Daniel Gallant, executive director of the Nuyorican, explained that few know of the existence of the archives we were set to explore, and even fewer got to view this lofty realm as the Café has no certificate of occupancy for the top three floors of the building, which are not open to the public and are used strictly for storage. Daniel described how poet Miguel Algarín, and the Café’s other founders, had acquired the building from LaMama Theater creator Ellen Stewart in 1980 and established a venue where Lower East Side poets, playwrights and musicians could present their work.

After Daniel unlocked the padlock fastened to a small piece of plywood serving as a makeshift door leading to the third floor, we crouched to squeeze through the narrow entryway. As we ascended the stairs, the exposed brick walls were crowded with posters, paintings and costume designs from former productions held in the performance space occupying the first two floors of the building. Reaching the top of the stairs we entered a dimly lit, open loft space crammed in virtual disarray with a treasure trove of costumes crowded on racks, stage props, banners, posters and a vast collection of bric-a-brac accumulated over more than thirty years.

Costume designers have borrowed some of these period outfits for use in recent films. A large sign for one of the Nuyorican’s landmark productions, “Julius Caesar Set in Africa,” hung on the wall. As we wandered about the floor, it was difficult to appreciate everything. Exposed brick walls, fireplace mantles, thick wooden rafter beams were the only remains of the former railroad apartments that had existed in the building’s former tenement incarnation.

Dan regaled us with the history of numerous Nuyorican productions which had their sets and costumes created in this space. Tony Award winning playwright and actor Sarah Jones began her career with her first solo show, “Surface Transit” at the Nuyorican in 1998. She recently returned for a two week engagement after a Broadway run of “Bridge and Tunnel.” A sewing machine, paint cans, bolts of fabric, containers holding glitter, jars full of buttons, rolls of yarn and thread were evidence of the many hours that artists and writers like Sarah Jones “Bridge and Tunnel” and Miguel Piñero (“Short Eyes”) labored in the space. Read more…