On a sweltering Monday night in early July, as Canalside visitors lounged in Adirondack chairs and scalpers hawked their last tickets to Lady Gaga’s show in the First Niagara Center, a crowd about 100 gathered under two white tents near the Commercial Slip to watch the premiere of a new play about Buffalo history.
The collaborative dance and theater piece “It Happened Here: The Commercial Slip and the Buffalo Story,” created by Mark Goldman and produced by a group of historians and activists known as Friends of the Buffalo Story, is meant to put Buffalonians back in touch with the buried history of their city and its re-emerging waterfront.
The show features a collection of short historical vignettes, each one reanimating some slice of the city’s once-bustling Canal District and presented in the voice of a character who inhabited the neighborhood during its heyday. Original songs performed by Anthony DiGesare break up the individual stories with bits of hip-hop narration, which, along with an excellent break-dancing segment from the Verve Dance Studio depicting a Canal District draft riot, lend needed jolts of theatrical caffeine to a night that might otherwise have been hopelessly sedate.
Taken as a whole, the piece is rough around the edges and uneven. As a truly collaborative production in the “devised theater” style, each actor shaped the tone and content of their individual segments much more than in a traditional play, in which the playwright prescribes the action and the director calls the shots. The result is a disjointed but often fascinating and idiosyncratic look into the hidden past of the city’s waterfront, a place that once teemed with commercial boat and foot traffic, played host to gang fights and union squabbles and served as a lucrative market for saloon owners and prostitutes alike.
While the entire piece lacked cohesion, try as DiGesare and director Eve Everette did to smooth the transitions between the stories, there was much to like in some of the individual vignettes. Rolando Gomez, as the great Seneca chief Red Jacket, kicked the show off with a starry-eyed rumination that tells the sweeping story of the Native Americans who once were the region’s only inhabitants. Though it eventually breaks down into a preachy screed that seems better suited for an op-ed than for a historical play, there’s plenty of lovely poetry in it.
Other highlights include SUNY Buffalo State professor Laurence Shine’s turn as saloon owner and Democratic boss Fingy Connors, Don Capers’ rousing portrayal of black saloon owner William Douglas (he of the original Dug’s Dive) and Loraine O’Donnell’s delightfully smarmy and irreverent appearance as Pug Nose Cora, who told how she kept the oldest profession running and led the crowd in a rendition of “Buffalo Gals.”
“You never knew that little ditty you sang in middle school was about working girls, now did you dearie,” O’Donnell said, her brogue by then in full effect.
By the rising standards of professional theater in Western New York, this new piece doesn’t exactly stick out. But there’s something heartening about watching actors and dancers – amateurs and professionals alike – working together in the service of the city and its great stories that lie hidden just beneath the surface just waiting to be excavated.
If you find yourself wandering through Canalside on a Monday night, past where grain ships once docked, Irish gangs fought and streetwalkers plied their trade, consider dropping by this show to learn a bit more about where you are.
2.5 stars (out of 4)
What: “It Happened Here”
When: 7 p.m. Mondays through Aug. 11
Where: Canalside, near Commercial Slip
Info: Valet parking is available. More information at friendsofthebuffalostory.org