Emily Warren Roebling musical heading to Scotland, at the world’s largest art festival
When the high school drama team Troupe #7892 found out it was the only student group from New York selected to attend the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland, the world largest arts festival, the students knew they had to come up with an original show.
Looking for an authentic idea, the troupe shaped by teens from several schools in Queens raised only one premise: It had to be a story of a remarkable New York woman.
After combing through a list of dozens of overshadowed women, the cast was amazed by Emily Warren Roebling’s story, the woman who commanded the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge after her husband, the bridge’s chief engineer, fell ill.
“Emily Warren stood out the most to us simply because she literally bridges a gap between two different types of New Yorkers, being Manhattan people, the city folks and people from Brooklyn,” said 17-year-old writer and actor Jade Mahbub, a Bengali student who plays Charles Martin, the assistant engineer of the bridge.
“A lot of people in our troupe come from very different backgrounds and we felt that this bridge was not only literal but in a metaphorical sense, something that connected all of us,” he added.
After being accepted to the Fringe in February 2017, the group started researching through books, visiting historical sites, such as the Roebling Museum in Roebling, N.J., and interviewing engineering firms to understand the complexity of building the architectural marvel.
It was the birth of “Building Emily Warren,” a historical tale framed in contemporary music, what they call a “Hamilton-esque” show, referring to the Broadway smash hit that combined history and hip-hop to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton.
The rap-driven musical recounts Emily Warren’s life and skills that helped her become a bridge between city officials, workers and her husband Washington Roebling, who could no longer read or write during the last years of construction.
“The story is a story of strength, is a story of women’s rights, is a story of immigration, really everything that New York City is,” said Lindsay Shields, director of the troupe, a group that is part of the International Thespian Society, an honor organization for high school and middle school theater students.
Not only do students fill the cast, but the lights, sets, sound and stage management are also made up of teens between the ages of 15 and 19. Composer Felix Jarrar, a graduate student of Brooklyn College, then helped them with the music.
Many of the kids, whom most are immigrants or have an immigrant story, live in high poverty and have had to overcome having parents in jail, homelessness and raising younger siblings, according to Shields. Performing in the largest arts festival in the world is for them, not only a once in a lifetime opportunity but an economic hurdle.
“We’ve been fundraising all year to get the students to be able to go,” Shields said. “Wonderful foundations reached out to us and provided a lot of monetary support. We’ve also solicited friends and family and strangers on the internet to donate money towards this production.”
The show also highlights the Brooklyn Eagle’s role during the 14 years of the construction, reporting on what happened daily with the bridge and keeping the project spotlighted.
For the troupe, “Building Emily Warren” is, besides a portrait of a pioneering female figure, an opportunity to talk about today’s issues such as equality, gender gaps and pay wages.
“The show revolves around so many things that are extremely important in today’s society,” Mahbub said. “Me and the rest of our crew just wanna make sure that when someone sees the show, they take away all of that.”
Before its premiere at the festival in Scotland, “Building Emily Warren” will perform on Aug. 2, 3 and 4 at WOW! Cafe Theater in New York.
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