Three activists in Newman’s play

The Castillo Theatre’s current production “Mr. Hirsch Died Yesterday” has the distinction of bringing together three activists of our time: playwright Fred Newman, director Woodie King Jr. and development psychologist Dr. Lenora Fulani making her acting debut in the role of Freda.

Another distinction occurred the night of this review. It was pizza and a play night and the seats were filled to capacity with young male and female high school students. Like the sophisticated theatre goers that New Yorkers are known to be, they applauded at the appropriate times and all cell phones were silenced.

Sitting next to 16-year-old Shalisha McIntosh from Brooklyn’s Edward R. Murrow High School, I learned she was a summer 2009 graduate of Youth OnStage and is cast in the upcoming Young Playwrights from Castillo play “Nine Falls from Grace.” Her classmates were all part of the All Stars Project of which Dr. Fulani is the co-founder along with Fred Newman, Ph.D.

In 1986, Newman wrote and directed “Mr. Hirsch Died Yesterday” which is based on a short story he wrote as a student at City College of New York in the 1950’s. Set in the Bronx, where he was born, an African American woman who grew up in the Bronx in the 1960’s and a Jewish man who also grew up in the Bronx in the 1940’s meet and discover their shared history.

The simple tale is expertly directed by New Federal Theatre’s producing director King who brings to life the nice and not-so-nice of Newman’s youthful memories. Using a video screen to display a photo montage of Hirsch’s past helps us to understand why he maintains an unshaved, disheveled appearance.

The bitter Mr. Hirsch (Moshe Yassur) and his affable brother-in-law Mr. Hoffman played by Joseph Mallon operate a sweet shop where the neighborhood youth hang out reading the comic books and occasionally begging Mr. Hirsch for quarters for burgers. Although Hirsch does not like them around he worries about getting his delivery of cherry marshmallow candy, which he knows they like.

He is accused of being phony when he gives money to local charity and in the 50-minute production he is talked about by adults and youth alike while each shows their nice and not-so-nice attitudes.

“I said, yes, and then I got petrified,” Fulani remembers when King asked her to take on the role of Freda. Although not a trained actor, she does have three decades of public speaking under her belt and following his clear directions she lived many believable moments as did the other actors.

The Castillo has a tradition of casting professionals with non-professionals and she knew it was important to bring this production to the African American community to spark dialogue amongst them. “Fred’s philosophy goes beyond time and space,” she continued and it was clear that the young people are a part of this philosophy as they realize their dream as the arts become a part of their growing, developing them into citizens of the world.

The cast includes Lindsay Arber (young Freda), Dana Berger (Gabrielle), Debbie Buchsbaum (Esther Dubrow), Lenora B. Fulani (adult Freda), Zoe Geltman (Iris), Joseph Mallon (Mr. Hoffman), Reynaldo Piniella (Ira/Delivery Guy), Ben Prayz (Fred), Katya Pucci (Sadie Greenberg) and Moshe Yassur (Mr. Hirsch). The production runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday until Feb. 20. This is a must see for all ages!

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