“There’ll be sickness, and there’ll be dancing.”
During the AIDS crises, I lost several friends who wound up in St. Vincent’s Hospital. Novenas for a Lost Hospital begins at an Episcopal church, St. John’s, around the corner from the former hospital and the Rattlestick Theatre. In the courtyard, the dead come back to life haunting, swaying to the sounds of cello and flute. We cleanse our hands with water poured over them into bowls. Some dance and we are lead to The Rattlestick Playhouse.
St. Vincent’s ministered to the gay community and Greenwich Village from 1849 to 2010. The church ran some of the first AIDS crises centers and today hosts the LGBT Catholic group, Dignity.
“Nurses trained here. Doctors healed here. Babies were born and people died here. So many glorious and inglorious exits. How do we hold that memory when the bricks are all gone?”
At the Rattlestick we learn the history of St. Vincent’s from the partitions and then Elizabeth Ann Seton (Kathleen Chalfant). There are nine prayers, or Novenas, that are turned into short plays of how the Sisters of Charity (Seton’s order) founded St. Vincent’s. First administering to cholera in the 19th century, then AIDS, to finally the victims of 9/11. While the sisters tried to bring hope and charity, bankruptcy, greed and a luxury real estate developer, could not ward off the Multimillion-dollar apartments that loom over the city today.
Seton’s cohost is Pierre Toussaint (Alvin Keith), a Haitian immigrant and contemporary of Seton’s. From slave to sought-after hairdresser in New York, he is now being considered for sainthood, but why I could never figure out. Toussaint’s presence is the one piece of the puzzle that makes no sense. Instead of focusing on one subject, playwright Cusi Cram adds other issues, which complicate what we are watching.
Seton and Toussaint lead us back through time as an AIDS patient (Ken Barnett) keeps returning from the brink of death, as his choreographer boyfriend (Justin Genna), passes away. Kelly McAndrew and Natalie Woolams-Torres, play all the sisters/caregivers who offered hope, healing and compassion.
The cast, especially Kathleen Chalfant is luminous.
Director Daniella Topol keeps the epidemic in the forefront and creates a memorial that is enhanced by Ari Fulton’s costumes. The set gives a spiritual aspect thanks to Carolyn Mraz’s hundreds of hanging blue butterflies and inspirational messages.
The ending is a procession to the AIDS Memorial, quite close to the hospital that is now long gone. I was moved, not so much from the play, but in remembering those I lost.
We are losing our hospitals, we are losing our faith, we are losing our hope Novenas is right, it is up to us.
Novenas for a Lost Hospital: St John’s in the Village, 218 W 11th St.