On Saturday, February 29, Sean and I started a long, fun-filled day in Manhattan with a sobering visit to African Burial Ground National Monument, which marks and memorializes an early colonial slave cemetery that was only rediscovered in the early 1990s. The visit anchored and provided framework for a day that would focus on history, science, family, and race, culminating in an activist-minded Broadway show. But even with all that on a packed day during a packed weekend, African Burial Ground National Monument was deeply resonant and has stuck with us in the months since our visit.
Although we knew we had a busy day ahead of us, we allowed ourselves a little time to sleep in before heading out. Once we did step out onto the sidewalks of the Lower East Side, we started walking downtown toward the area around City Hall. On the way we stopped at a gamer cafe for coffees and breakfast sandwiches.
We cut through Chinatown and through Foley Square before arriving at the Monument.
I’ll admit that my earliest knowledge of the site, back before it was a National Monument, was mediated by a white woman, Ani DiFranco, in her 1998 song, “Fuel”:
They were digging a new foundation in Manhattan
And they discovered a slave cemetery there
May their souls rest easy now that lynching is frowned upon
And we’ve moved on to the electric chair…
…Am I headed for the same brick wall?
Is there anything I can do
About anything at all?
Except go back to that corner in Manhattan
And dig deeper
Dig deeper this time
Down beneath the impossible pain of our history
Beneath unknown bones
Beneath the bedrock of the mystery
Beneath the sewage system and the path train
Beneath the cobblestones and the water main
Beneath the traffic of friendships and street deals
Beneath the screeching of kamikaze cab wheels
Beneath everything I can think of to think about
Beneath it all
Beneath all get out
Beneath the good and the kind and the stupid and the cruel
There’s a fire that’s just waiting for fuel
The song conveys the opening of the story. In 1991, during the preliminary stage of constructing a new federal building on Broadway between Reade St and Duane St, workers discovered human remains.
Preliminary archaeological research excavation found intact human skeletal remains located 30 feet below the city’s street level on Broadway. During survey work, the largest and most important archeological discovery was made: Unearthing the “Negroes Buriel Ground”- a 6-acre burial ground containing upwards of 15,000 intact skeletal remains of enslaved and free Africans who lived and worked in colonial New York. The Burial Ground’s rediscovery altered the understanding and scholarship surrounding enslavement and its contribution to constructing New York City. The Burial Ground dates from the middle 1630s to 1795. Currently, the Burial Ground is the nation’s earliest and largest African burial ground rediscovered in the United States.– National Park Service
Four hundred nineteen remains were disinterred from the site before activists successfully lobbied for initial archaeological studies to cease. In 1993, the remains were transferred to Howard University where extensive research was conducted on them. In 2003, the remains returned to Manhattan in a six-day procession from Washington DC. They were reinterred at the site in seven carved sarcophagi from Ghana.
Although in New York City, the property is federally owned, giving the federal government control over the site. The design for the federal building being constructed at the time was altered to allow room for a memorial. In 1993, then Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt designated the site African Burial Ground National Historic Landmark.
The Office of Public Education and Interpretation was created to interpret the site and to coordinate community input into the decision making process. The office, housed at 6 World Trade Center, was destroyed in the September 11 attacks, but most of the artifacts housed there were eventually recovered.
In 2006, President George W. Bush established the site as African Burial Ground National Monument. The Monument includes the outdoor Ancestral Libation Chamber and Ancestral Reinterment Ground as well as a Visitor Center and multiple art commissions inside the completed federal building at 290 N Broadway.
The streets were largely deserted that unseasonably warm Saturday morning as Sean and I reached the site. Unfortunately, the Ancestral Libation Chamber was undergoing some repair, so we were only able to look at it and its inscription from a distance.
For all those who were lost
For all those who were stolen
For all those who were left behind
For all those who were not forgotten
The symbol next to the inscription is a West African symbol, the Sankofa, which means “learn from the past to prepare for the future.”
The Ancestral Reinterment Ground is marked by seven mounds for the seven sarcophagi the 419 remains were reinterred in. All told, the complete cemetery site is thought to hold 15,000 remains over six acres of Lower Manhattan, the vast majority buried under streets and buildings and plazas.
After reading the outdoor signage, we entered 290 Broadway and passed through the security checkpoint into the Visitor Center.
Inside, the moving exhibits went beyond the Burial Ground itself to celebrate a sweeping story of Africans and African Americans in the United States.
Movingly, a section of the exhibit celebrates the rediscovery of the Burial Ground and foregrounds the activists who worked for its honoring and protection.
The archaeological significance of the site can’t really be overstated. While African slavery was common in the colonies after 1619, many of the records of experiences of enslaved peoples were told by their enslavers. By the time of the abolitionists and the classic slave narratives of the nineteenth century, slavery was relegated to the agrarian economy of the southern states. Archaeological evidence or records by enslaved peoples in the early northern colonies was not common. The 419 exhumed remains were a trove of new information.
That information was horrifying. The experience of the people buried in the Negro Burial Ground of early New York City was unimaginably brutal. The bones gave evidence of rampant brutality, disfigurement through excruciating labor and disease, and short, violent lives.
No old people’s bones were found in the excavated portion of the burial ground. More than 50 percent of African men had died by age 40, and a startling 80 percent of African women had died by that same age. Many of the enslaved Africans’ children born in New York did not survive their first two years, and males and females aged 15 to 24 years old died at high rates.– Dr. Martia G. Goodson, New York’s African Burial Ground
Extrapolating out these findings suggests that life for slaves in the burgeoning urban economies of the North was more violent and deadlier than in the agrarian South at the time.
Despite the horror of their lives, those interred in the Burial Ground were clearly buried with ceremony and honor. The dead were buried with their heads to the west to face and greet the rising sun in the east. They were buried in shrouds, and many of the burials included trinkets or ornaments such as beads or shells. Enslaved early New Yorkers consecrated their dead.
Sean remarked that every person elected to a leadership role in government should have an obligation to visit sites like this to learn and experience our national history.
We were both deeply moved by African Burial Ground National Monument, and we resolved to return when the reconstruction was complete in order to spend more time at this place.
As it was, our attentions that day turned uptown, and we soon were on the subway headed to the Upper West Side to meet Sean’s sister and nieces at the American Museum of Natural History.
When we emerged near the museum, Sean’s sister, Michelle, texted that they were parking and would meet us inside.
We entered on the planetarium side and waited for them.
Once we met up with Michelle, Alex, and Tati, we chatted and caught up while wandering somewhat aimlessly around the museum, stopping at whatever caught our eyes.
I was impressed at how forward facing the climate change content was.
We wandered into Roosevelt Hall. Ol’ Teddy’s father had been instrumental in the museum’s creation. Teddy himself donated many specimens to the collection from hunting trips in the American West, in Africa, and in South America.
I was also impressed that in Roosevelt Hall, the museum somewhat addressed its racist legacy of colonized peoples as anthropological subject.
We made a visit to the Blue Whale, a touchstone for Sean. This is the New York museum that he has visited more than any other. It is for him the equivalent of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for me.
At 1:30, we had tickets for admittance to the exhibition, T. rex: The Ultimate Predator, which used to latest paleontological research to revise our perception of the most famous of dinosaurs.
Afterward, we strolled toward the cafeteria to get some lunch.
We had a delightful afternoon with Michelle and the girls. Sean and I resolved to begin planning for a return trip in September. I’d have to be in Washington DC for a board meeting in early September and then we had a wedding to attend on Martha’s Vineyard in mid-September, so the timing could turn out well as long as Sean’s work schedule allowed.
Michelle wanted to see the Easter Island head so we made our way to the hall of Pacific cultures, including the Philippines.
We concluded our visit back at the planetarium. Sean and I had to get a move on so that we could get washed up and have dinner before our show.
We hugged goodbye and promised to see them in September!
Back in our hotel, we dropped our things and tidied up for dinner.
We had an early dinner at Taverna di Bacco, two doors up Ludlow from our hotel. I got the bison ragu, because why not?
After dessert, we rode the subway up to Times Square for the show. The line to get into the Broadhurst Theatre was a little insane. By the time we were actually passing through the lobby, though, we had a cool celebrity sighting, openly gay free-style skier and Olympic bronze medalist, Gus Kenworthy. For us, he was just about a perfect celeb sighting. Walking in with his date right behind Sean and me, he ended up sitting a few rows behind us (presumably in house seats).
Speaking of alt-rock white women from the 90s, we were seeing Jagged Little Pill, the musical based on Alanis Morissette’s 1995 megahit album of the same name. It had just opened in December to mixed to positive reviews. Sean had been enjoying the cast recording, so I had surprised him with tickets to the show as a Christmas present.
I had not listened to the cast recording before sitting down in my seat at the Broadhurst, nor did I know anything more about it than the barest set-up, that it focused on a suburban Connecticut white (save for an adopted Black daughter) family slowly cracking and falling apart against a backdrop of hyper-contemporary (Trump administration) America.
If you had asked me going in who the target audience for this show was, I’d have said us, 40-something gays who first encountered the album in high school or college. While I think that’s true to an extent and somewhat accounts for the show’s “critic’s pick” review by Jesse Green in the New York Times, the show has picked up a devoted following online among Gen Z fans the same age as the large ensemble playing high school and college aged characters (many of whom weren’t born when the album was released).
Beyond those demographics, the Black 40-something lesbian sitting to my left loved the show and was cheering and whistling at curtain call, declaring it just the best thing she’d seen. So there’s that.
Like any jukebox musical, the show distributes the album’s songs (plus a few from other Morissette releases including 2020’s Such Pretty Forks in the Road) to the characters to build a narrative architecture. Some of the choices are intriguing, like giving “So Unsexy” to the suburban dad character by switching the song’s genders and forcing a fresh listen to the lyrics.
The book is by screenwriter, Diablo Cody, who won an Oscar for Juno. She uses the conflicts of one family to frame a sweeping reaction to the first three years of the Trump era. The composition of the central Healy family—white mother and father, white college-aged son, Black high school aged daughter—invites conflict as increasingly independent daughter, Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding) navigates the hyper-white spaces of her Connecticut town. Mother Mary Jane (Elizabeth Stanley in a stunning star turn) struggles with secret opioid addiction as she tries to keep her fracturing family together.
When a rape accusation rocks the community and sweeps up golden boy son, Nick (Derek Klena), the pressure on the family becomes overwhelming.
Although it’s an ensemble show with almost everyone getting showpieces in Morissette’s songs, Stanley’s Mary Jane is the explosive center, and her performance is up for the challenge and then some. A Broadway veteran known for comic roles (I saw her in 2007 in the revival of Company), she has huge emotional range as a dramatic actor, and her voice has ragged edges that she knows how to use perfectly for this pop-rock material.
Because Mary Jane is the jagged core of the show, the musical’s fury and scenes depicting overt activism draw from the zeitgeist of the Women’s March and #MeToo, but the show’s indictment of our moment is large enough to contain Black Lives Matter, Parkland, climate change, and other crisis points.
The show has been criticized for being over-stuffed and dismissed as cloyingly earnest. This assessment—from reviews barely ten months old—has not aged well. It’s ironic (don’tcha think?) that the show depicts a family and a community buffeted to the breaking point by all the things that the Trump era throws at them and only focuses on the first three years of his abysmal presidency.
Obviously, Jagged Little Pill shut down with the rest of Broadway only twelve days after the performance we attended. When the show reopens sometime in the unknown future, I suspect that the trials and tribulations of the Healy family, criticized as a bit over-the-top, will feel naively easy. Oh, just racial conflict, opioid addiction, and rape? We’ll raise you criminally mishandled global pandemic, economic devastation, and racial unrest that makes the show’s feel tame.
The scale of death and disruption bearing down on the nation was, of course, unimaginable as the show started performances in December 2019. Jagged Little Pill is therefore a fascinating artifact of a moment of liberal rage and frustration just before the bottom would completely fall out.
Lauren Patten’s delivery of a queered version of “You Oughta Know” genuinely stops the show. It’s the album’s most famous song, and giving it to a young queer character makes it fresh. Patten’s performance is star making.
While Diane Paulus’ direction keeps the show focused and the pace clipping along, it is choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, collaborating with Stanley and dancer Heather Lang, who delivers a truly memorable stage moment, one of those things that can only exist in the theater. Mary Jane’s overdose scene, rendered by a split depiction of the character with Stanley delivering a howling, anguished rendition of “Uninvited” and Lang writhing, dancing, and practically levitating as the character’s physical embodiment, is breathtaking. Staged with severe lighting and on nothing but a sofa down center, it creates an indelible stage image.
Jagged Little Pill is an unabashedly activist show that centers just the sort of college educated suburban white woman who, demographically, has fled Trump and the GOP in the past four years. Throughout the summer, the cast and creative team have actively supported and amplified Black Lives Matter, holding multiple virtual events and fundraisers. It’s cliche to write that the show was ahead of its time (by what? months?), but if and when it reopens it will be in a world where the strain put on families by roiling devastation and cruelty that the show depicts have become a lot more real for a lot more Americans.
Afterward, and still buzzing from the show, we headed back downtown to get an after theater drink somewhere. We ended up back at Taverna di Bacco and sat at the bar. We got chatting with the bartender who shared with us that we were one of four separate parties that evening who’d returned hours after dining for dessert or a drink.
After a couple cocktails, we darted across Ludlow so Sean could grab a New York-style slice before heading up to our room to catch the final few minutes of John Mulaney on SNL and then going to sleep.