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There are two important facts New Yorkers sometimes forget about their city:

  1. New York is a colossus of concrete and steel superimposed over one of the greatest natural harbors on the globe. It’s easy for modern city dwellers to forget just how vital these waterways once were to the city’s identity and survival.
  1. New York’s cultural core is Dutch. Everything from its celebrated multiculturalism, to its capitalist drive, down to some of our favorite foods and pastimes where brought to us through Dutch New Amsterdam. We at Untapped Cities like to remind you of this. We also offer a tour that closely explores our Dutch cultural heritage.

Port Cities NYC, an immersive performance piece conceived, written and directed by South African-born and Brooklyn-based artist, Talya Chalef, artfully weaves both these points together.

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The complete Port Cities Project will be a global performance piece linking five cities along the 17th century Dutch trade routes. The project will connect New York, Perth, Cape Town, Jakarta and Amsterdam by exploring each city’s local myths, legends and folklores while projecting them through the lens of contemporary issues.
Port Cities NYC is the first movement in Chalef’s endeavor. It’s described as a ghost story about inheritance centered around a young woman named Katie who has spent most of her life feeling haunted by her family’s past. The story Chalef tells is an intimate and sometimes disturbing look into old New York and New Amsterdam where Katie’s ancestors traded, bought, sold and helped build a wall that continues to divide many today.
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Chalef notes that Port Cities has been close to her heart for a long time. “I visited my family home in Cape Town and imagined the initial image of a man camouflaged inside a projection of a city. As he emerged from the waves of everyday movement, he placed a toy trading ship onto a box as a gift to us. I couldn’t shake this image. I began thinking about trading routes, ships across the sea, movement, and the things that connect us through time and space.”
The cultural ripple from New York’s participation as a slave trade hub is closely explored. Chalef reminds us that New Amsterdam prospered because of the slave trade and it was the windfall from slavery that both literally and figuratively built the foundations of the capitalist system we know today.
She goes on to explain, “When Ferguson erupted I couldn’t ignore the famous photograph of a black man with his hands up. It reminded me of the image of a body traced in chalk on the ground at a crime scene. I couldn’t help but think of ghosts. The ghosts on the street, under the streets, and of the violence that we continually see as symptomatic of something deeper.”
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What makes Port Cities NYC so immersive and at times, breathtaking, is how Chalef uses the current waterways as her canvas. To view the performance, audience members meet at Pier 11 off of Wall Street and board the Water Taxi to Red Hook. From the dock to their final destination at the Waterfront Museum and Showboat Barge, virtually every second of their experience is choreographed. Before boarding the ferry, audience members are sent an MP3 file loaded with a recorded monologue by Katie and a twenty-minute soundscape to accompany their ferry ride. Once in Red Hook, the audience is escorted to the pier where Katie and two of the other performers rhythmically walk from the water into the historic barge where the story begins.
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Once inside the combination of live music, stunning projections and fast-paced story telling make Port Cities NYC a unique theatrical piece worth checking out before it moves on to it’s next phase. It’s also worth noting that just being inside the Waterfront Museum Barge is worth the trip. Built in 1914, the #79 was one of the thousands of wooden barges plying New York Harbor carrying cargo like coffee beans and fabrics. Today it is the only wooden covered barge of its kind still floating and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Its owner introduced himself after the show told the audience how he purchased the derelict barge for one dollar back in the ’80s. The barge was carefully restored and is now used as a classroom, museum and performance space devoted to educating people about New York Harbor.
Port Cities NYC has two remaining performances this Wednesday, May 18th at 8:00pm (a talkback will follow) and Thursday May 19th also at 8:00pm. To purchase tickets click here.
Next, read about the secrets of NYC’s Former Slave Market at Wall Street and discover the important architectural sites along the Hudson River.